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THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 



Other works by ROBERT GRAVES include 


COLLECTED POEMS (1914-1947) Cassell 

POEMS AND SATIRES, I 95 I Cassell 

POEMS, 1953 Cassell 

THE COMMON ASPHODEL (cssays On Poetry) Hamish Hamilton 
THE WHITE GODDESS (enlarged edition, 1952) Faber and Faber 
THE GREEK MYTHS Penguin 



THE CROWNING 

PRIVILEGE 


THE CLARK LECTURES 

1954-1955 

ALSO VARIOUS ESSAYS ON POETRY 

AND 

SIXTEEN NEW POEMS 

h 

ROBERT GRAVES 



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Copyright, 1955, by Robert Graves 
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CONTENTS 


FOREWORD 

THE CLARK LECTURES, 1954-1955 

1. The Crowning Privilege 

2. The Age of Obsequiousness 

3. The Road to Rydal Mount 

4. Harp, Anvil, Oar 

5. Dame Ocupacyon 

6. These Be Your Gods, O Israel! 


Page 

ix 


3 

25 

45 

70 

92 

112 


VARIOUS ESSAYS ON POETRY 


Mother Goose’s Lost Goslings 
The Old Black Cow 
The Essential E, E. Cummings 
Juana de Asbaje 

Poems by Juana de Asbaje, with translations 
The Poet and his Public: A Home Service Broadcast 
Best Man, Bore, Bamboozle, Etc. 

Theft 

Kynge Arthur is Nat Dede 
Dr Syntax and Mr Pound 

• • 
vu 


139 

155 

161 

166 

176 

185 

192 

197 

206 

212 



SIXTEEN NEW POEMS 


The Clearing 

215 

A Lost Jewel 

216 

The Three Pebbles 

217 

The Question 

218 

The Window Sill 

219 

The Sea Horse 

220 

Spoils 

221 

Beauty in Trouble 

222 

Poets’ Corner 

223 

End of the World 

224 

Penthesileia 

225 

To a Pebble in my Shoe 

226 

The Tenants 

227 

Coronation Address 

228 

My Moral Forces 

229 

Interview 

230 


Vlll 


FOREWORD 


I T is doubtful whether lectures intended for delivery to a largely 
undergraduate audience, and therefore addressed in the first 
place to the passions, should be published as though they 
were closely argued critical essays. But such is the custom with 
the annual Clark Lectures sponsored by Trinity College, Cam- 
bridge; and so I have done no more with this year’s batch 
than to check my facts and restore a few passages extempor- 
aneously omitted after an anxious glance at the lecture-room 
clock. Professor F. W. Bateson who was up at Oxford with me 

just after the First World War, has been good enough to read 
proofs. 

My subject was: ‘Professional Standards in English Poetry’, 
but I am using the title of the first lecture for this book, since it 
is enlarged with several essays on poetry or related topics, and 
a broadcast piece. The ‘crowning privilege’ of the English poet 
^5 as I explain, his membership of a wholly anarchic profession. 
No craft-school grants him diplomas; no Royal Academy grades 
his technical capacities; no General Council disciplines him. 

IS responsibility must be to the Muse alone, a stern task- 
mistress never satisfied with any performance offered her. He 
will speak his mind about poetry without polite qualification 
(short of committing treason or obscene libel), but remains 
always in a minority of one, unless he breaks with poetic tradition 
y organizing a clique, pleiad or movement in Continental style. 
At the close of the book, fattened with nine miscellaneous 
essays on poetry, I include sixteen new poems for good measure. 

Deyd, Majorca, Spain d p 


IX 




THE CLARK LECTURES 

1954-1955 




LECTURE I 


THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 

M y gratitude to the Trinity College authorities for having 
thought of me when they chose this year’s Clark Lecturer, 
is tinged with a certain surprise. I have been domiciled 
in Spain for nearly twenty-five years, and not lectured at an 
English University since the First World War. In 1917, I was 
quartered at Wadham College, Oxford, where my audience 
consisted of officer cadets, mostly from oversea, and my subjects 
were tactics, leadership, morale, the use and maintenance of 
■vreapons, military law, map-reading, and the conduct expected 
of an officer and gentleman. An ideal audience, because who- 
ever yawned or doodled in his notebook, or argued the toss, or 
dared to look at me with what we called ‘dumb insolence’, was 
liable to be returned to his unit: which, in 1917, usually meant 
the trenches. While giving these cadets a three months’ intensive 
course in professional military standards, I had to be practical, 
and also downright. And also humble: most of them were older 
than I, and had a better general education. Today I am equally 
humble, with all the awkwardness of a grey-headed backwoods- 
man (toting my billy, frying-pan, and axe); but intend to be 
equally practical and downright. 

Before discussing professional standards in English poetry 
which are the general topic of these lectures, let me emphasize 
an important point. Unlike stockbrokers, soldiers, sailors, doc- 
tors, lawyers, and parsons, English poets do not form a closely 
integrated guild. A poet may put up his brass plate, so to speak 
without the tedious preliminaries of attending a university’ 
reading the required books and satisfying examiners. Also a 
poet, being responsible to no General Council, and acknowledg- 
ing no personal superior, can never be unfrocked, cashiered dis- 
barred, struck off the register, hammered on ’Change, or flo’gged 

[3] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 

round the fleet, if he is judged guilty of unpoetic conduct. The 
only limits legally set on his activities are the acts relating to 
libel, pornography, treason, and the endangerment of public 
order. And if he earns the scorn of his colleagues, what effective 
sanctions can they take against him.^ None at all. 

This difference between the poetic profession and others may 
seem platitudinous, but I shall insist on it all the more strongly; 
because what English poets have always been free to enjoy, if 
they please, is the privilege of not being formally enrolled as 
such. Where is there any official roll of poets, analogous to the 
Army and Navy Lists, the Medical Register, or Crockford} 
This general privilege, as I understand it, implies individual 
responsibility: the desire to deserve well of the Muse, their divine 
patroness, from whom they receive their unwritten commissions, 
to whom they eat their solitary dinners, who confers her silent 
benediction on them, to whom they swear their secret Hippocratic 
oath, to whose moods they are as attentive as the stockbroker 

is to his market. 

I do not, of course, suggest that every English poet has always 
been sensible of this crowning privilege, or even aware that the 
Muse has a real existence — as real, for her devotees, as Karl 
Marx’s existence, or Freud’s, or Aquinas’s, to theirs^. Indeed, 
when a few years ago I published a book in the Muse s honour, 
The White Goddess, several self-styled poets mistook her for an 
improvisation of my own. They patronizingly called her Mr 
Graves’s White Goddess\ although she had already been publicly 
acknowledged by an English poet at the beginning of the Tudor 
period. John Skelton wrote a poem called: 

Why were ye Calliope embrawdred with letters of golde? 

SKELTON LAUREATE ORATOR REG. MAKETH THIS 

AUNSWERE, ETC. 

Calliope^ 

As ye may se^ 

Regent is she 
Of poetes aly 
Whiche gaue to me 
The high degre 
Laureat to he 

[4] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


Of fame royall; 

Whose name enrolde 
With silhe and golde 
I dare be bolde 
Thus for to were^ 

Of her I holde 
And her housholde; 

Though I waxe olde 
And somdele sere^ 

Yet is she fayne, 

J^oyde of disdayn^ 

Me to retayne 
Her seruiture: 

With her certayne 
I wyll remayne^ 

As my souerayne 
Moost of pleasure^ 

Maulgre touz malheureux. 

It may be asked what right I have to formulate the principles 
governing the professional conduct of poetry. I have no pre- 
scriptive right at all; and it must be clearly understood that I am 
not speaking ex cathedra, A guest lectureship is not a Chair, 
and nobody is obliged to agree with me. My function, as I 
understand it, is merely provocative. Besides, gratitude for not 
eing enrolled in any organized society of poets prevents me 
from suggesting that I may voice the opinion of even a minority 
01 my fellows. What I have to offer for your scrutiny are per- 
sonal principles, deduced for my own guidance from a long study 
ot poems and poets. Whoever finds them too subjective may 
correct them to suit himself; or, if he likes, may formulate others. 

r irst, then, to consider the economics of the poetic profession: 
an interesting theme, because it should not really arise and 
yet has become a stock subject of debate in Bloomsbury pubs 
the more cultured weeklies, and certain philo-philanthropic 
cultural uplift organizations. When I was twelve or thirteen 
years old my father asked me: ‘What are you going to be, my 

i>plendid, but what will you do for your bread and butter?’ 
iresh from my history class on the French Revolution, I found 

[5] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


myself answering improvidently: ‘I shall eat cake/ ‘Oatcake?’ 
asked my father in a kindly voice. 

Yes: I ate oatcake for some years, and liked it — I had a 
Scottish grandmother. 

A soldier or sailor draws his pay; a parson draws his stipend, 
eked out with Sunday collections ‘for church expenses’; a doctor 
or lawyer draws his fees; and I who was once young and am now 
old have never seen a stockbroker forsaken, or his seed begging 
bread. But, as my father pointed out, one well-known pecu- 
liarity of the poetic profession is that the poet cannot expect to 
support himself by it. My father, himself a poet, earned his 
bread and butter as one of Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Schools. 

In most professions the size of a man’s income is a fairly 
reliable criterion of worth: no inefficient soldier or sailor can hope 
to draw the pay of a Field-Marshal or Admiral of the Fleet. 
It is seldom either by chance or by favour that a particular Q.C. 
or Harley Street surgeon earns a thousand guineas a year more 
than his fellows. And, as for parsons, such high intellectual and 
executive qualifications are demanded nowadays from Bishops, 
Deans, and Canons, however saintly, that the extra loaves and 
fishes accruing to them need no apology. Among poets, how- 
ever, the income test works in reverse: make a comfortable living 
by writing poems and you risk being treated with derision. The 
argument runs: ‘Poetry does not pay, consequently what you 
sell is not poetry.’ And I agree that there seem to be few excep- 
tions to this rule. 

The terms of the Clark bequest forbid me to deal with English 
literature before Chaucer; yet a few flash-backs would probably 
be in order, to provide the necessary historical data for the post- 
Chaucerian scene. In Anglo-Saxon times, grants of land, or 
money-presents in lieu of land, were given to poets by kings 
and princelings. These gifts were made, it seems, because the 
presence of a poet at Court was an ancient tradition of royalty 
(like the healing of diseases by the laying on of hands) that had 
lasted over from earlier times. And although no written records 
survive, anthropologists will, I think, allow me to assume an 
original situation, back in the neolithic age, when the king 
enjoyed no executive power, being merely a sacred consort of 
the queen and under her magic tutelage. The queen appointed 
druids, or oak-men, skilled in magical charms, to stand constantly 

w 


THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


by the king’s side and ensure that no accidental breach of royal 
taboo on his part — by eating beans, touching a dog, wearing a 
knot in his clothes, and so on — could endanger the safety or 
fertility of the realm. King and druid owed allegiance to the 
sovereign goddess incarnate in the queen — the goddess who was 
still nostalgically invoked in Classical Greece by the Homeridae, 
as the Muse — meaning the Mountain-goddess. 

The revolutionary usurpation by the All-Father Wotan, or 
Odin, or Gwydion, of the throne occupied by the variously- 
named Northern All-Mother, parallels the triumph of All-Father 
Zeus over the variously-named Mediterranean All-Mother. In 
the course of the second millennium b.c. the sacred king, after 
first being occasionally permitted to deputize for the queen and 
wear her robes, broke the shackles of taboos — how strong they 
were can be judged from ancient Welsh, Irish, Roman, and more 
recent African analogies — and instituted armed patriarchalism. 
He became the most powerful individual of his tribe rather than 
the sacred ritual leader; and, thereafter, instead of persuading his 
people to the right behaviour which his own sacrificial example 
exemplified, he sustained the social order by giving summary 
commands to his henchmen. Thus the druids became court 
bards, whose function was no longer to guide, protect, and 
cherish the king, but merely to celebrate his temporal power. 

The earlier system continued in Ireland until historical times 
having there been modified rather than superseded when the king 
turned warrior. His ollamhs, or druids, continued to enjoy a 
prolonged and intense training in the magical and poetic arts at 
a forest college. The arch-ollamh ranked in dignity next to the 
queen and acted as a vizier; his profession was endowed his 
person was sacrosanct, and a gift for killing by satire made’him 
the terror of the warnor class and even of the king. If the Church 
was slow to undermine his power, this was because Christianitv 
had been introduced by eloquent and tactful missionaries not 
(as elsewhere) at the point of the sword; and because the colleges 
ot ollamhs accepted Jesus and his Mother as completing ratLr 
than discrediting, their ancient theology. The Irish bishops 
appointed at first by the kings, not by the Pope, were expected 
to sing low, and did sing low. They Christianized the Triple- 
goddess Brigit, patroness of poets, as St Bridget, and her im- 
memorial altar-fire at Kinsale was still alight under Henry VIII 

® [7] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


In Wales, where the Goddess was called Cerridwen, the change 
from paganism to Christianity came suddenly and violently: the 
North British Brythons, who entered North Wales with the 
fifth-century King Cunedda, were Christians.* The pagan Goi- 
delic ollamhs whom they turned out, and who seem to have been 
educated and organized in the Irish style, became wandering 
minstrels. At the Welsh Courts they were superseded by their 
own apprentices, young men who had not yet been initiated into 
the supreme religious mysteries. These low-grade bards {bard 
was a word of contempt in Ireland) were willing to embrace 
Christianity and accept the restrictions imposed on their art by 
the bishops; so that the Chief Bard eventually won a respectable 
place at the king’s board — though below that of the royal 
chaplain, the chief falconer, and the steward of the table. A bard’s 
task now was to honour God, praise the king, refrain from 
untruth (meaning any poetic reference to Cerridwen) and from 
hurtful satire. 

The Anglo-Saxon invaders of England, on the other hand, had 
no organized colleges of ollamhs^ nor even (so far as is known) 
any guild of saga-singers, like the Greek Homeridae who claimed 
the sole right of performing in public. Anyone might compose 
poems to the harp, if he could; and (this is the point that I want 
to make) it has fortunately been the same ever since among the 
English-speaking peoples. An Anglo-Saxon scop might inherit 
his father’s stool and harp and repertoire; but his position at 
Court depended on the king’s indisputable pleasure, and should 
he fail to hold it, he must turn wandering gleeman, to combine 
recitation with tumbling and mime in the country market places. 
His standing was far from high: scop (versifier) being a polite 
synonym for the pejorative word scald^ which meant a ‘scold’ 
— one who talks too loud and long. The Deor^ an Early English 
fragment of about the year 600, preserved in the Exeter Book^ 
witnesses to his social insecurity. It is a coda, attached to the 
Geatish saga-cycle (of which Beowulf also formed part) and 
summarizing the sufferings of the principal characters in the 
cycle. The refrain runs: 

Thaes ofereddey thisses swd maeg, 

[That overpassing^ this also may^ 

* See TAe Old Black Cow, p. 156. 

[ 8 ] 


THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


The last verse, suddenly becoming personal, runs: 


Then I of myself / will this make known: 

That awhile I was held / the Heodenings scop. 

To my duke most dear^ / and Deor was my name^ 
I performed many winters^ / a worthy office 
For a handsome lord^ / until Heorrenda^ 

Being skilled in lays^ / my land-right usurped 
Which the kingdom's strength / of old assigned me. 
That overpassing^ / this also may. 


Deor attempts no harmful satire on the handsome lord who had 
preferred another scop to himself. He merely registers disappoint- 
ment and hopes that one day the loss will be remedied. 

The Norman Conquest scotched the Anglo-Saxon tradition of 
the court-^co/7, and though Richard Coeur de Lion and Henry III 
employed a Versificator Regis — I suppose for rhymed chronicles, 
epitaphs and suchlike — at their Norman-French Courts, the 
office lapsed about a century before Chaucer’s day. Chaucer 
did not revive it, nor did he even make poetry a wholetime 
profession. He was a valuable public servant with an entree at 
Court secured by his marriage into the family of John of Gaunt, 
Richard IFs uncle. Slavish commendations of royalty had not 
yet become fashionable. The envcys to Chaucer’s shorter poems 
are dignified; he even dares lecture Richard II on what kingly 
conduct should be. Nor did he sue for royal bounty until late 
in life; and even then the humorous Compleint to his Empty Purse 
pays a most restrained court to Henry IV. He simply recognizes 
Henry as the rightful sovereign of the realm: 


To you, my purse^ and to non other wight 
Compleyne /, for ye be my lady derel 
I am so sory^ now that ye be lights 
For certis^ but ye make me hevy chere^ 
Me were as leef be l^d up on my here; 
For whiche un-to your mercy thus I cry e: 
Beth hevy ageyn^ or elles mot I dye! 

[9] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


Now voucheth sauf this day^ or hit be nighty 
That I of you the blisful soun may here^ 

Or see your colour lyk the sonne bright^ 

That of yelownesse hadd'e never pere. 

Ye be my lyf ye be myn hert'es stere^ 

Quene of comfort and of good companye: 

Beth hevy ageyn^ or elles mot I dye! 

Now purSy that be to me my lyves lights 
And saveour^ as doun in this worlde here^ 

Out of this toune help me through your 
Sin that ye wole nat been my tresorere; 

For I am shave as nye as any fr ere. 

But yit I pray un- to your curtesye: 

Beth hevy ageyn^ or elles mot I dye! 

Lenvoy de Chaucer 
O conquerour of Brutes Albioun! 

Which that by lyne and free eleccioun 
Ben verray king^ this song to you I sende; 

And ye^ that mowen al our harm amendey 
Have minde up-on my supplicacioun! 

Henry filled the purse at once, but in recognition of Chaucer*s 
non-poetical services: as Clerk of Works, Comptroller of the 
Wool and Petty Customs, diplomat, and secret-service agent. 

Gower, Chaucer’s contemporary, also had close relations with 
the King, and did not depend on him for money; he seems to 
have preferred Court pleasures and honours to the dull routine 
of a Kentish landowner’s life. But, his social position being 
perhaps less secure than Chaucer’s, he wrote courtly praises of 
Richard II in his Confessio Amantis (the subject of which was set 
him by Richard himself); and, his spirit being less noble than 
Chaucer’s, recast these in Henry IV’s favour when Richard 
abdicated. 

Lydgate’s case is instructive and exceptional. Though Chaucer 
wrote solely for his own pleasure, and Gower had been glad to 
adopt Richard’s suggestion of a poetic theme, Lydgate was forced 
(apparently against his will) to become a sort of scholarly 
V zrsificator Regis. The rules of his Order compelled every 




THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


monk to unthinking obedience; so Henry V commissioned Lyd- 
gate, through his superior, to translate Giovanni delle Colonne’s 
30,000-line Historia Trojana^ which took eight years; then the 
Earl of Warwick called him to Paris in 1426 to turn into English 
a French poetical pedigree proving Henry VI to be the rightful 
King of France. In the same year the Earl of Salisbury set him 
another translating task; the 20,000-line PiUrinage de la Vie 
Humaine — an allegory by de Guileville. Next, the Duke of 
Gloucester commanded him to translate Boccaccio’s 36,000-line 
De Casihus Illustrium Virorum, an even more formidable com- 
mission. Lydgate records how unwelcome it was: 


Thus my self rememhyring on this bohe 
It to translate how I had undertake^ 

Ful pale of chere^ astonied in my loke^ 

Myn hand gan tremble^ my penne I felte quake, 

• • • • • 

I stode chekmate for feare when I gan see 
In my way how littel I had runne. 


But he could not refuse the task, though it obliged him to resign 

his position at Hatfield Priory, where he had been educating 

young noblemen in the humane arts. A small yearly stipend 

was then granted him, by way of compensation, and he carried 

on with his hack duties until he died, pen in hand; though seven 

years earlier he had complained that his wits were long ‘fore- 
dulled*. ® 

John Skelton, a horse of a very different colour, tutored Prince 
Henry, afterwards Henry VIII, and they continued on friendly 
and even joking terms for many years. Henry’s mother had 
given Skelton the cure of Diss in Norfolk to reward his con- 
scientious tutorship and good influence on the unruly boy and 
protected him while she lived. Skelton consented, as ‘ Royal 
Orator’, to write a Latin epitaph for her husband, Henry VII 
ending this with a loyal address to her son. One of his earliest 
poems, the elegy On the Death of the Noble Prince Edward the 
lourth, her father, is sincerely felt, extremely moving, and con- 
tains no single word of flattery: 




THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


Miseremini Tnei,ye that be my frendisl 
This world hath formed me downe to fall: 

How may I endure^ when that eueri thyng endist 
What creature is borne to be eternall? 

Now there is no more but pray for me all: 

Thus say I Edward^ that late was youre kynge^ 

And twenty two yeres ruled this imperyall^ 

Some vnto pleasure^ and some to no lykynge: 

Mercy I aske of my mysdoyngc; 

What auayleth it^ frendes^ to be my foo^ 

Sith I can not resyst^ nor amend your complaining? 
Quia, ecce, nunc in pulvere dormio! . , , 

Where was in my lyfe such one as /, 

Whyle lady Fortune with me had continuaunce? 
Graunted not she me to haue victory^ 

In England to rayne^ and to contribute Fraunce? 

She took me by the hand and led me a daunce^ 

And with her sugred lypp'es on me she smyled; 

But^ what for her dissembled countenaunce^ 

I coud not beware tyl I was begyled: 

Now from this world she hath me excyledy 
When I was lothyst hens for to go^ 

And I am in age but^ as who sayth^ a chylde^ 

Et, ecce, nunc in pulvere dormio ! . , . 

Skelton, despite the contempt of Pope and Milton, showed a 
stronger sense of poetic calling than almost any of his successors. 
It was as a poet, not as a priest, that he dared openly defy Cardinal 
Wolsey, Henry’s right-hand man; for which bravado he spent 
the last six years of his life in confinement. The following 
Merrie Tale of Skelton reads authentically enough. He had 
ridiculed Wolsey for his lack of learning and presumption, and 
called him ‘cur and butcher's dog*; 

On a tyme Skelton did meete with certain frendes of hys at 
Charyng crosse, after that he was in prison at my lord cardynals 
commaundment: & his frende sayd, I am glad you bee abrode 
amonge your frendes, for you haue ben long pent in. Skelton 
sayd, By the masse, I am glad I am out indeede, for I haue been 
pent in, like a roche or fissh, at Westminster in prison. The 

[ 12 ] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


cardinal, hearing of those words, sent for him agayne. Skelton, 
kneeling of hys knees before hym, after long communication to 
Skelton had, desyred the cardinall to graunte hym a boun. Thou 
shalt haue none, sayd the cardynall. Thassistence desirid that 
he might haue it graunted, for they thought it should be some 
merye pastime that he vryW shewe your grace. Say on, thou 
hore head, sayd the cardynall to Skelton. I pray your grace to 
let me lye doune and wallow, for I can kneele no longer. 

The medieval English court-poet, then, was not engaged as 
such by the king; but just as there is a fat boy in every school 
(even if he is not really very fat), and a funny man in every 
barrack-room (even if he is not really very funny), so there was 
always a Court-poet at Court, even if he was not much of a poet. 
Between Gower and Skelton came the undistinguished John Kay 
and Andrew Bernard. But not until the reign of Elizabeth could 
a talent for verse-writing support an application for a place of 
trust. Then Spenser — through Leicester’s influence — secured a 
secretaryship in Ireland, a country which he hated, hoping that 
if he could please Elizabeth by his praises of her in the Faerie 
Queene, he would be called to London. Unfortunately, before 
he had finished his task, the rebellious O’Neils, unaware that he 
was a poet, turned Spenser out of his castle. He returned, broken 
in health and purse, and died soon after. 

James I, who regarded himself as a critic of poetry, and wrote 
an elementary handbook of prosody, recognized Samuel Daniel’s 
talent for verse by appointing him gentleman-in-ordinary. This 
encouraged Michael Drayton to panegyrize James, and even 
write a sonnet commending his Royal Muse — a breach of pro- 
fessional dignity; but, as it happened, room could not be found 
for Drayton at Court, so he crossly revoked the sonnet. In the 
next reign, pique at being denied positions in the King’s gift 
turned at least two poets into the Puritan camp: Milton, because 
of the Royal Fellowship at Christ’s which he thought should be 
his but which was conferred on the original of ‘Lycidas’; and 

May, who was vexed at not being appointed Jonson’s successor 
as Poet Laureate. 

Since poets still had no guild, nor any traditional economic 
status, nothing — let me repeat — prevented noblemen or royalty 
itself from writing poetry. James IV of Scotland would be 
remembered as author of The Gaberhav^e man^ even if Flodden 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 

had never been fought. And Henry VIII would be remembered 
for his love song As the Holly Groweth Green^ even if there had 
been no breach with Rome. Wyatt, Surrey, Sidney, Oxford, 
Raleigh, and Queen Elizabeth herself were all poets. 

It is an ancient tradition of the European feudal system that 
the lord does not demean himself by taking wages, under any 
circumstances; or by going into trade. He may march to war, 
sack towns, and hold fellow-knights to ransom, or he may stay 
at home and live on his rents; but he must never openly infringe 
the function of the merchant or artisan. In Greece, the poet 
ranked as an artisan, which is (I suppose) why Agamemnon, 
Odysseus, and Achilles never deigned to call for a lyre; and why 
Peisistratus, the tyrant of Athens, contented himself with patron- 
izing the Homeridae rather than being adopted a member of their 
guild. In England, until the invention of printing, the poet — if 
we except the wandering minstrel, who went round the country 
ale-houses with his store of ballads, and an orphan (vide Sir 
Walter Scott) to carry the harp — did not expect to earn a living 
by his poems. There was as yet no publishing system to make 
this possible, and when finally the stationer (a publisher-cum- 
bookseller) set up shop, no copyright law at first protected the 
author. A poem was not a physical object of agreed value, liable 
to be stolen in the usual sense. Unless the author could prove 
theft of a manuscript book of poems (an obvious felony, because 
vellum had value, and copyists* fees were high), he had no cause 
for complaint if someone memorized and printed his poems. 

Thus, to be a poet agreed with the code of nobility. When 
Tottell set the fashion of poetic anthologies, it was the stationer, 
not the poet, who profited; and after the Charter given in 1566 
to the Stationers Company (as a means for facilitating censor- 
ship) it was the stationer, not the poet, who held the copyright. 
Stationers, by the way, were so called because, unlike the book- 
peddlers, they kept stationary. Once Thomas Thorp had secured 
copies of Shakespeare’s sonnets from the enigmatic Mr W. H., 
and entered them at Stationers* Hall, Shakespeare was powerless 
in law either to prevent, or to profit from, their sale. It is possible 
that Shakespeare (shrewd businessman though he was in malt, 
hides, and real-estate) had sold the copyright of Venus and Adonis 
to the publisher who entered the volume at Stationers* Hall; but 
if so, he would not have advertised the fact. He was bound to 

[m] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


keep his distance from the professional ballad- writers: low-born 
scoundrels who supplied the great public with the brief equivalent 
of Sunday newspapers, who seldom signed even their initials to 
what they wrote, and who did not dare claim poet’s rank. 
Shakespeare satirized their patter in a well-known passage of his 
Winter s Tale, 

If small poets of the day starved in garrets, that was because 
they had no patron and tried to live on hack-writing jobs at the 
playhouse, or among the stationers of St Paul’s Churchyard, 
Davenant in his Long Vacation records: 

Now man that trusts^ with weary thighs^ 

Seeks garret where small poet lies: 

He comes to Lane^ finds garret shut; 

Then^ not with knuckle^ but with foot ^ 

He rudely thrusts^ would enter dores; 

Though poet sleeps not^yet he snores: 

Cit chafes like beast of Libia; then 
SweareSy he I not come or send agen. 

From little lump triangular 
Poor poets sighs are heard afar. 

Quoth he^ ''Do noble numbers chuse 
To walk on feet y that have no shooseP 
Then he does wish with fervent breathy 
And as his last request ere deaths 
Each ode a bondy each madrigaly 
A lease from Haberdashers Hally 
Or that he had protected bin 
At courty in list of chamberlain; 

For wights near thrones care not an ace 
For W oodstreet friend y that wieldeth mace. . . . 

* • • • • 

In stockings blew who marcheth on, 

With velvet cape his cloack upon; 

In girdhy scrowleSy where names of somCy 
Are written downy whom touch of thumbcy 
On shoulder left must safe convoy y 
Anoying wights with name of rcy. 


- ^ m • i 

Courts pay no scores but when they IL 
And treasurer still has cramp in fist. . 

[15] 




THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


Davenant concludes with: 

But stay^ my frighted pen is fled; 

My self through fear creep under bed; 

For just as Muse would scribble more^ 

Fierce City dunne did rap at door. 

This is a joke on himself. Davenant was comfortably off, though 
he may have been overspending his income. And poetry as a 
gainful profession was not yet respectable. . . . Why did Eliza- 
bethan and Jacobean noblemen leave drama alone, apart from 
Masques and Interludes written for Court use, or for performance 
in their own courtly mansions.^ Because a peer might not engage 
in trade: and the Elizabethan theatre was a money-making 
concern. 

This brings me to the subject of dedications. When Shake- 
speare, Drayton, Daniel, Donne, Chapman, and Jonson pub- 
lished their poems — though not their plays, which did not count 
as poetry, even if they were — the stationer expected them to 
supply a formal dedication, sanctioned by some person of honour 
and influence, as a means of selling the book. The buyer would 
read the dedication and say: ‘Hm! This is no bookseller’s hack 
writing for profit. This is a true poet, a gentleman of breeding 
and substance, and on easy terms of friendship with the Earl 
of So-and-so.’ (Or with the Lord Chamberlain; or with the 
Countess of Such-and-such.) ‘The Queen herself would not 
disdain to cast her eyes on it. Here’s my shilling.’ The buyer 
was satisfied, the bookseller delighted, the dedicatee flattered, 
and the dedicator did not think ill of himself. 

Similarly, in Elizabethan times, when the feudal system still 
went creaking on, a poet who happened to be sine nobilitate 
(a phrase which, shortened to s.nob has, some say, given English 
the valuable word ‘snob’) was obliged to secure a patron: much 
as a private soldier today cannot address an officer unless escorted 
by an N.C.O. Moreover, to gain recognition by the right people 
— unless he were a nob^ without the preliminary s — the poet had 
to be either in holy orders or a gentleman. The courtesy of 
gentlemanly rank (eventually stabilized by the title Esquire) was 
accorded to all masters of art at Oxford and Cambridge, or 
members of the Inns of Court; which helped several leading 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


dramatists in their social climb, though not Shakespeare. Shake- 
speare’s position was equivocal, despite his eminence on the stage 
and his friendship with Southampton, Pembroke, and Essex. 
But he managed to secure a coat-of-arms for his father — -which 
drew derisive hoots from the rival theatre — and thus became 
presentable at Court and even (as appears in a sonnet) eligible 
as a canopy-bearer on some State occasion. 

One great difference between now and then is that to rank as a 
poet in the Elizabethan or Jacobean sense, a man must have 
published a longish work — such as Venus and Adonis and The 
Rape of Lucrece. With a few dozen sonnets he could also qualify. 
But a verse play, even one containing so many detachable poems 
as The Tempest^ or Hamlet^ or Anthony and Cleopatra^ was con- 
sidered irrelevant. And, whereas the poetry written today con- 
sists almost wholly of ‘lyrics’ — lyrics without music — in Eliza- 
bethan times, every lyric had its music, but lyrics did not count 
as poems. Shakespeare wrote the lyrics for his plays; probably 
also the incidental songs required while properties were being 
shifted and the change of scene announced. (In my Common 
Asphodel I give evidence for supposing that the strange and 
beautiful poem Loving Mad Tom was Shakespeare’s adaptation 
of a Bedlamite ballad, sung by Edgar in King Lear after his 
‘Edgar I nothing am.’) No dramatist felt obliged to be his own 
lyricist; any more than the matador at a Spanish bull-fight feels 
obliged to plant his own hander illerasi though a few of the better 
matadors do so, and thereby improve the afternoon’s perform- 
ance. Shakespeare would have disdained to advertise: "King 
Lear^ a tragedy by Mr Wm Shakespeare, with lyrics by the same 
hand.* Nearly all the lyrics from the Elizabethan song books, 
among them some of the truest poems written in English, are 
anonymous. The musicians who arranged with the stationers to 
have their songs published gave the author of the words no 
printed credit. It is unknown who supplied Captain Tobias 
Hume with his: 


Fain would I change this note^ 

To which false love hath charmed me. 



Or Thomas Ford with: 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


There is a lady sweet and kind^ 

W IS never face so pleased my mind. 

Or Robert Jones with; 

And is it night? Are they thine eyes that shine? 

Are we alone^ and here? And here^ alone? 

Or John Dowland with; 

Deare if you change^ Til never choose again; 

Sweet if you shrink^ Til never think of love. 

— though it now seems likely that Dowland, like Campion, 
wrote his own lyrics. Even Henry Vaughan’s authorship of 
Yet if His Majesty^ our Sovereign Lord^ in the manuscript col- 
lection of early music books at Christ Church, Oxford, must 
remain a surmise. 

Yet these poems were the work of highly educated men, not 
stationers hacks. One of them, written for Thomas Weelkes; 

A sparrow hawk proud did hold in wicked jail 
Music s sweet chorister^ the nightingale. . . . 

is a literal translation from Hesiod; and the language of the Song 
Books never fails to be courtly. We may be certain that the 
lyricist asked no money for such ‘idle toys and trifles’; though 
the musician may have invited him to a venison pasty and a 
bottle of good wine, which would not compromise his amateur 
status. It had been the same with the medieval carols — a form 
originally introduced by Franciscan friars; to find an author’s 
name attached to them is rare. 

I have mentioned the laureateship. Skelton had been appointed 
‘Royal Orator’; and he was also ‘Laureate’ in the sense that he 
had won distinction for his Classical scholarship at Oxford, 
Cambridge, and Louvain. Ben Jonson had been similarly 
laureated; and the Crown did not venture to award its own 
laurel garland to a poet until 1638, when Charles I bestowed it 
on Davenant. Jonson’s pension was a charitable one. Hearing 
that he had lost his library by fire, had suflTered two 

[18] 


paralytic 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


strokes, and had seen his New Inn hissed off the stage, Charles 
increased the pension awarded by James I: in recognition not of 
Jonson’s general poetic fame, but of his services to the Crown 
in the writing of Court Masques. It is noteworthy that Jonson 
refused the honour of knighthood offered him as a reward for his 
Masque Gipsies Metamorphosed^ presumably because he thought 
that though a knight might become a poet, poetry was not 
honoured by the irrelevant accolade. He dismissed titles as 
‘birdlime for fools*; and called poetry ‘The Queen of Arts, 
which had her original from Heaven*. 

Indeed, the only rewards in which a poet is properly entitled 
to rejoice are three. First, the sense that what he has written not 
only stands on all four feet, but has sufficient animation to walk 
away by itself, and perhaps go on walking long years after his 
death. Second, he rejoices if his worthy poetic contemporaries 
acknowledge this creative event — though the Elizabethan prac- 
tice of writing ‘commendations* to the works of a fellow-poet, 
and even dropping them into his grave, has now lapsed. Last’ 
and above all, he rejoices in the approval shown by the personal 
Muse for whom he has written the poem, however grudgingly 
her praise may be couched. 

Ben Jonson, the first poet who lectured to his fellows on the 
subject of professional standards, died in 1637, just before the 
Puritan Revolution. The vacating of his chair in the Apollo 
room at the Old Devil’s Tavern, the closing of the theatres, and 
the extinction of Merry England on the field of Naseby make a 
sharp break in this story. As an anonymous Cavalier wrote in a 
ballad called The World Turned Upside Down'. 


To conclude^ Til tell you news that’s right: 
Christmas was kiVd at Nasebie fight^ 
Charity was slain at that same time^ 

Jack Tell troth, roo, a friend of mine. 


Poetry, also, had received a deep wound, from which the 
recove^ was long delayed. 1645 is a convenient date for me to 
^11 a halt; but I trust I have made my point, which is that pro- 
tessional tradition, since Chaucer, prevents the English poet from 
letting ^y hopes of gain or of social advancement influence his 
work. This is not to say that he should refrain from offering his 

[19] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


poems for sale as a means of circulating them, or that he should 
refuse assistance offered him for that purpose by friends or 
acquaintances. Only, he must not allow a private patron, or a 
publisher, the right to call the tune: by which I mean the right 
to decide how he shall write or what he shall write. To call the 
tune is the function of the Muse alone. Her demands are unfore- 
seeable and ungainsayable; and her hand cannot be forced. 

Let me enlarge on this. The legitimacy of accepting official 
honours for poetry may seem a moot point, but in my opinion, 
as in Ben Jonson’s, they should be politely declined. It is not as 
though the Sovereign personally chose beneficiaries of Birthday 
or New Years honours. Both lists are prepared, under orders of 
the Cabinet, by a committee of political officials; and these have 
no more right to decide who is a true poet than the poet has to 
intervene in Cabinet meetings. The situation is made worse by the 
invidious sliding-scale of official honours conferred. Just as the 
Distinguislied Conduct Medal was devised to enhance the dignity 
of the Victoria Cross (and, incidentally, to save the Crown the 
6d. a day pension which went with it), and the Military Medal 
to enhance the dignity of the Distinguished Conduct Medal, so 
the Companionship of Honour was first devised to enhance the 
dignity of the Order of Merit; and inferior awards now enhance 
the dignity of the Companionship of Honour. Bestowal of a 
greater or lesser Order on a man for his supposed services to 
poetry — as opposed to scientific, military, or political services, 
which are more easily assessable and in the public domain — that 
is an act of criticism which no politician nor permanent civil 
servant has any right to make. Granted, Thomas Hardy, one 
of the most moral of poets, accepted the Order of Merit. But he 
knew that the award was conferred on him for his novels, which 
the Cabinet’s advisers had read, rather than for his poems, which 
they had not; and, on the whole. Civil Servants are as likely to 
know a good novel from a bad as are professional reviewers or 
publishers’ readers. 

Thomas Hardy told me himself, when I stayed with him in 
August 1920, that he was not interested in the fate of his poems 
once he had written them. 

(By the way, an amusing example of social distinction in the 
painting world is the certificate of merit awarded to an Associate 
of the Royal Academy: it is made out to, say, Timothy Dauber, 

[20] 


THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 

Gent. When Dauber is elected a Member he goes up in rank: 
he is Timothy Dauber, Esq. I inquired into this, and was told 
that the ‘ Gentleman* was originally a certificate of good conduct: 
that, if commissioned to paint a portrait, he could at any rate be 
trusted not to steal the silver or insult the chambermaids. The 
‘Esquire’, a certificate of elegant manners, gave him access to the 
drawing room.) 

Professional standards in poetry, then, are founded upon the 
sense enjoyed by every English poet since the time of Chaucer, 
that he forms part of a long and honourable tradition. Usually 
he has contemporaries whom he can love and respect; thus it 
has meant a great deal to me that I once lived on terms of friend- 
ship with my elders Thomas Hardy and William Davies, and 
with men of my own age like Wilfred Owen and Norman 
Cameron — to name only the dead. It meant much to Keats and 
Darley that Coleridge had been kind to them, and to Swinburne 
that Landor had given him the poetic blessing he demanded. 
A sense of kinship with poets of an earlier age can be as strong 
as any contemporary bond; and I realize now how deep a pro- 
fessional influence my favourites have had upon me. Not only 
by the opinions they expressed, but by their behaviour and 
character; for who has ever successfully disguised his character 
in what he wrote.^ 

I have never been able to understand the contention that a 
poet’s life is irrelevant to his work — unless this means merely, as 
it did in the iSyo’s, that acceptance of the Thirty-Nine Articles, 
or membership of a reputable club, or an orthodox love-life, are 
not a sine qua rwn of literary eminence. If it means that a poet 
may be heartless or insincere or grasping in his personal relations 
and yet write true poems, I disagree wholeheartedly. 

Nearly all poets make out a critical list of their favourites, 
convinced that they alone represent the authentic English tradi- 
tion. Skelton’s list occurs in Philip Sparow^ fathered on Jane 
Scroop (the pretended authoress): 

Gowers Englysh is olde^ 

And of no value told; 

His mater is worth gold^ 

And worthy to be enrold. 

In Chooser I am sped^ 


THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


His tales I haue red: 

His mater is delectable^ 

Solacious and commendable^ 

His Englysh well alowed^ 

So as it is enprowed . . . 

At those days moch commended^ 
And now men wold haue amended 
His Englysh^ whereat they barke^ 
And mar all they warke: 

Chaucer^ that famous clerke^ 

His terrnes were not darke^ 

But pleasaunt^ ^^d playne; 

No worde he wrote in vayne* 

Also John Lydgate 
Wryteth after an hyer rate; 

It is dyffuse to fynde 
The sentence of his mynde^ 

Yet wryteth he in his kind , . . 
But some men fynde a faute^ 

And say he wryteth to haute. . . . 


And in his Garland of Laurel these three poets, in beautiful 
apparel adorned with diamonds and rubies, lead Skelton to the 
Goddess’s Temple. His only criticism of their works is that they 

all lacked sound Classical learning. 

Ben Jonson’s preferences occur in The Return from Parnassus 

(i6oi), and in his undated Discoveries. He lists: 


Chaucer, 

fPyatt, 

Spenser, 

Raleigh, 

Daniel, 

Drayton, 

Davies, 

Marlowe, 

Shakespeare, 

[22] 




THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


and, of course, Jonson himself. But he had changed his mind 
about some of these by 1619, when Drummond of Hawthornden 
records of him: 

. , . His Censure of English Poets was this, that Sidney did not 
keep a Decorum in making every one speak as well as himself. 

Spencer’s stanzaes pleased him not, nor his matter, the meaning 
of which Allegoric he had delivered in Papers to Sir Walter 
Raughlie. 

Samuel Daniel was a good honest man, had no children, bot 
no poet. 

that Michael Drayton’s Polyolbion (if had performed what 
he promised to writte the deeds of all ye worthies) had been 
excellent. His long verses pleased him not. 

that Silvesters translation of Du Bartas was not well done. . . , 

William Browne, Jonson’s contemporary, but rather more of 
a modernist, praises Sidney, Drayton, Ben Jonson, Daniel, Brook, 
Davies, and Wither. Milton as a young man wrote marginal 
comments on The Pastorals^ apparently approving Browne’s 
choice. He might have added to the list, with a certain disdain: 
‘Sweetest Shakespeare, fancy’s child, warbling his native wood 
notes wild.’ But probably not Chaucer, and certainly not Skelton, 
whom he later mentioned in his Areopagitica among the authors 
who deserved total suppression: 

I name him not for posterity sake, whom Henry the 8th named 
in merriment his vicar of hell. 

Milton called Skelton: 

One of the worst of men, who are both most able and most 
diligent to instil the poison they suck into the courts of princes, 
acquainting them with the choicest delights and criticisms of sin; 

and refused to see the point of Henry’s boyish joke: namely that 
Skelton was Rector of Diss in Norfolk and that ‘Dis’ is the 
Latin for Hell. 

Pope persuaded his contemporaries that nothing of conse- 
quence had happened in English poetry until Denham and 
Waller introduced the French style — all before was rusty, rude 

and low, or at the best, quaint in the Spenserian style; just as 
G [23] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


(according to the contemporary French theory) all French 
poetry, including Villon’s, had been until Malherbe. This apos- 
tasy caused a serious break in English poetic education. The 
threads were eventually gathered up again by Hazlitt and Coler- 
idge, when it once more became possible to read Chaucer, 
Skelton, and Shakespeare in the original, without condescension, 
and realize that ‘ Chauser, that famous clerke. His terms were not 
darke. But pleasant, easy and playne, No worde he wrote in 
vayne.’ 

Today we are threatened by a new apostasy from tradition; 
which has been my main reason for accepting the College’s 
generous invitation. I am not a born lecturer, nor even a very 
willing one; but it seems to me that someone has to speak out, 
and nobody else seems prepared to do so. My own preferences 
among the poets, and my reasons for making them, will be 
clearly given. 

If, in the course of this lecture, I have said anything out of 
order, pray forgive me. I am a stranger here. 



LECTURE II 


THE AGE OF OBSEQUIOUSNESS 

T o resume my rambling commentary from 1645, when the 
English world got turned upside down at Naseby: four 
years later, King Charles was beheaded. This monstrous 
event silenced some honest poets for ever, among them Herrick, 
though he lived another quarter of a century and at the Restora- 
tion won back the benefice from which his Royalism had ex- 
cluded him during the Commowealth. For when the Restoration 
came, no poet could follow the central English tradition of 
Chaucer, Skelton, and Ben Jonson. Hitherto professional stan- 
dards had been approved at Court, and on the Courtis return it 
was found to have gone all French. Charles and his boon- 
companions ruled that the age of poetical independence was 
over (‘independence’ having secured an evil name in the politico- 
religious context); and that the age of correctness, which in 
practice meant the Age of Obsequiousness, had begun. 

Usually the European power with the strongest army sets the 
fashion in literary forms, as in clothes and domestic furniture. 
Spain had done so throughout the sixteenth century, and the 
Spanish alto estilo (advertised by Lyly and his colleagues as 
‘Euphuistic wit’) persisted in English prose until the early 
seventeenth century, when the Spanish Empire began to crack 
from overstrain. Then came the turn of the French. A brief 
mtermediate phase of so-called ‘Metaphysical’ poetry took 
Euphuistic wit one degree farther into nonsense, and so prepared 
the way for clean-cut French Classicism, which any common- 
sensical gentleman could understand and imitate. The meta- 
physirals were led by Abraham Cowley, a literary careerist who 

specialized in what Dr Johnson afterwards called ‘enormous and 
disgusting hyperboles’: 


[-5] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


By every wind that comes this way^ 

Send me at least a sigh or two: 

Such and so many Pll repay 

As shall themselves make winds to get to you. 


It had all been very well for Ovid, Cowley’s mentor, to cut 
Latin poodle-fashion and put it through the circus hoops. Ovid 
cultivated a Hellenistic modernism, acceptable in Imperial Rome 
only because the dignified republican tradition had long lapsed. 
‘Rome had now become a jack-daw’s nest of promiscuousness 
and imprudent spoliation,’ — Gibbon might have written, but 
didn’t — ‘strange rites were celebrated in temples raised to enig- 
matic Eastern deities, and barbarian chieftains paraded Romulus’s 
Forum equivocally wrapped in snowy togas.’ Cowley had no 
such excuse for his frivolities: London was not yet a metropolis 
of Empire. Despite Cromwell’s military and naval successes, 
England remained a cool, green island off the north-western 
coast of Europe, frequented by few strutting Continentals, and 
with a vigorous native tradition of honour, decency, and straight 
speaking. Why then /neraphysicality.^ Why this rejection of the 
physical.^ Had Marlow, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and Webster 
written in vain? Far-fetched rhetorical tropes are not acceptable 
among the English, except for purposes of burlesque, or to over- 
awe the simple — as Touchstone used them on clownish William 
in the Forest of Arden (quoting that ‘most capricious poet, 
honest Ovid’); or as, more recently, Dylan Thomas used them 
on gaping listeners to the Third Programme. Cowley’s excuse 
was that he modelled himself on Donne, whom Ben Jonson had 
called ‘the first poet in the World in some things’, and who had 
written the oddly tortured Elegy on the Untimely Death of Prince 
Henry. Cowley was perhaps unaware that Donne (according to 
Ben Jonson) confessed to having written it as a jest: ‘to match 
Sir Edward Herbert in obscureness’. 


Cowley’s successor, Dryden, who consolidated Denham and 
Waller’s so-called reforms in the simplifying of metres and 
diction, was a vigorous time-server, the first of a gifted line of 
poets who made Israel to sin. He earned the doubtful glory of 
having found English poetry brick and left it marble — native 
brick, imported marble. Dryden had begun his literary career 
as a metaphysical. His Collected Poems start with the Epitaph 

[26] 



THE AGE OF OBSEQUIOUSNESS 

on Lord Hastings^ which he had not troubled, in later life, either 
to suppress or to smuggle in among his facetiae: 

Must noble Hastings immaturely die^ 

The honour of his ancient family^ 

Beauty and learning thus together meet^ 

To bring a winding for a wedding sheet? 

• • • • • 

Was there no milder way but the small-pox^ 

The very filthiness of Pandora! s box? 

So many spots^ like naeves o!er Venus' soil^ 

One jewel set off with so many a foil; 

Blisters with pride swelVd^ which through! s flesh 
did sprout 

Like rose-buds^ stuck t th! lily-skin about. 

Each little pimple had a tear in it^ 

To wail the fault its rising did commit: 

Which ^ rebel-like y with its own lord at strife y 
Thus made an insurrection Against his life. 

Or were these gems sent to adorn his skiny 
The caPnet of a richer soul within? 

This is so well-known that I quote it only to fix attention on one 
particular couplet, which is less grotesque than downright 
shocking: 


So many spotSy like naeves Per Venus' soif 
One jewel set off with so many a foil. . . , 

The filthy pustules rising on the peer*s diseased body are com- 
pared to the halo, or ring of rosy dots, which enhanced the fresh 
beauty of Venus’s breast. 

Can a man who has once sinned so grossly against the Muse 
hope to redeem himself in her eyes by however spectacular a 
conversion.^ ‘Homage to Dryden’ indeed! And Dryden’s con- 
version from metaphysicality was not to the poetic faith of his 
English predecessors, but to current French theory — an axiom 
of which was that English poetry reflected confusion and bar- 
barity. Louis XIV’s consolidation of power made this theory 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 

almost irresistible, because Charles, who trusted in a French 
alliance, favoured only those English writers who looked to 
France for their salvation. Paris, in the imagination of the French 
Court poets (and therefore of Dryden’s), was ancient Rome 
renewed; and London consequently became a Trans-Tiberine 
extension of Rome. Charles’s leading courtiers modelled their 
licentious behaviour on the heroes of Petronius’s Satyricon (first 
published in Padua and Paris, 1664) and on hints found in 
Suetonius’s Twelve Ccesars, Sedley, Buckingham, Rochester, 
and the rest cultivated a cynical, sycophantic, most un-English 
elegance, mocked at religion, faith, virtue, and humanity, as out- 
moded relics of Puritanism, and became adepts in the ‘mannerly 
obscene’. 

Charles rewarded Cowley with friendship for his long, 
grovelling Ode upon His Majesty's Restoration and Return, He 
also forgave Dryden, Waller, and Denham their panegyrics on 
his father’s murderer. But it was the egregious Sedley whom he 
held up as a literary model. Charles’s only dealings with Milton 
(whom I shall discuss later) were indirect; royal emissaries came 
secretly to Milton’s modest house in Bunhill Fields, asking for 
legal information that would help them to steer the Lord Roos 
Divorce Bill safely through Parliament — for Charles wanted to 
divorce his barren Queen, as Milton had wanted to divorce 
poor Marie Powell. 

There remains, of course, Andrew Marvell. Though finding 
it impossible at the Restoration to continue a poet in the romantic, 
sheltered, Appleton House vein, Marvell did not go French. He 
rejected Court fashions, made the still English city of Hull his 
spiritual home, not London, and thereafter confined himself to 
satire. His wit, as in the Coy Mistress^ was sometimes fantastical, 
but always robustly humorous. Though Marvell bore no grudge 
against kings as such, he regarded Charles II as a disaster, and 
his nostalgia for the Commonwealth derived principally from 
the great name that England had enjoyed in Europe while it 
lasted. His parody of a Speech from the Throne (1675 — two 
years before he died) shows by its very moderation, and its close- 
ness to the original, that he was still poetically sound in heart 
and head. This is Charles himself speaking, not a character of 
mock-heroic fiction: 


[28] 



THE AGE OF OBSEQUIOUSNESS 

. . . My Lords and Gendemen, 

... I can beare my own straits with Patience, but my Ld. 
Treasurer protests that the Revenue, as it now stands, is too 
little for us both; one of us must pinch for it, if you do not help 
us out. I must speak freely to you: I am under Incumbrances, 
for besides my Harlots in service my Reformado ones lye hard 
upon me. I have a pretty good Estate I confess, but Godhsh, 
I have a great Charge upon it. Here is my Ld. Treasurer can 
tell you that all the Mony designed for the Summer Guards 
must of necessity be employed to the next Yeare’s Cradles and 
Swaddling-Clothes. What then shall we do for ships? 

I only hint this to you, it is Your Business, not mine. I know 
by Experience I can live without them, I lived ten years without 
them abroad and was never in better health in my life. But how 
will you live without them you had best say; and therefor I do 
not intend to insist upon it. There is another thing which 
I must press more earnestly, which is, it seems a good part of 
my Revenue will fail in two or three Yeares, except you will be 
pleased to continue it. Now I have this to say for it. Pray why 
did you give me as much except you resolved to go on? The 
Nation hates you already, for giving me so much, and I will 
hate you now if you doe not give me more. So that now your 
interest obliges you to stick to me or you will not have a friend 
left in England. 

The severance of poetry from the Court, emphasized by the 
sorry farce of the eighteenth-century Laureateship with its 
obligatory Birthday and New Year Odes, soon tempted noble- 
men to expect even more fulsome praise from their proteges 
than the Sovereign had once earned. Dryden’s Dedicatory 
Address to the Duke of Ormonde (1699) is remarkable only because 
it was written by so firm a hand as his: 

My Lord, 

God Almighty has endued you with a softness, a beneficence, 
an attractive behaviour, winning on the hearts of others, and so 
sensible of their misery, that the wounds of fortune seem not 
inflicted on them, but on yourself. You are so ready to redress, 
that you almost prevent their wishes, and always exceed their 
expectations: as if what was yours, was not your own, and not 
given you to possess, but to bestow on wanting merit. But this 
is a topic which I must cast in shades, lest I offend your modesty, 
which is so far from being ostentatious of the good you do* 

[29] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


that it blushes even to have it known: and therefore I must 
leave you to the satisfaction and testimony of your own con- 
science, which, though it be a silent panegyric, is yet the best. . . . 

There are pages more of this. Dr Johnson explains Dryden's 
case as follows: 


The inevitable consequence of poverty is dependence. Dryden 
had probably no recourse in his exigencies but to his bookseller 
[Tonson]. The particular character of Tonson I do not know; 
but the general conduct of traders was much less liberal in those 
times than in our own; their views were narrower, and their 
manners grosser. To the mercantile ruggedness of that race, the 
delicacy of the poet was sometimes exposed. Lord Bolingbroke, 
who in his youth had cultivated poetry, related to Dr. King of 
Oxford, that one day, when he visited Dryden, they heard as 
they were conversing, another person entering the house. ‘This,* 
said Dryden, ‘is Tonson. You will take care not to depart before 
he goes away: for I have not completed the sheet which I pro- 
mised him; and if you leave me unprotected, I must suffer all the 
rudeness to which his resentment can prompt his tongue.* 

What rewards Dryden obtained for his poems, besides the 
payment of the bookseller, cannot be known. Mr. Derrick, who 
consulted some of his relations, was informed that his Fables 
obtained five hundred pounds from the duchess of Ormond; a 
present not unsuitable to the magnificence of that splendid 
family. . . . 


‘The inevitable consequence of poverty is dependence.* Per- 
haps. But is the inevitable consequence of poverty, obsequious- 
ness.^ That seems to have been the general theory in Dryden s 
day. A poet, to secure support and preferment from a nobleman, 
had to be both a gentleman and a party-man, responsive to the 
whip. And whether he chose to be Whig or Tory, it was pre- 
sently ruled that he might not write anything ‘low’ — as Chaucer 
had done in his Miller s Tale^ Skelton in his Elinor Rummingy 
and Ben Jonson in his Bartholomew Fair — or offend against 
decorum^ a magical word meaning any thought or expression 
unacceptable to contemporary French taste. What the reformed 
poets lacked was not exactly a schoolmaster (for Ben Jonson, 
from his chair in the Apollo room at the Old Devil’s Tavern, had 
put his scholars through the poetic rudiments); it was a posture 



THE AGE OF OBSEQUIOUSNESS 

master. Dryden, who now assumed this office, gave his classes 
at Will’s, a fashionable coffee-house. He acted as referee in all 
literary matters, deciding what might (or might not) be considered 
graceful, elegant, sublime, smooth, just, correct, or modeish. 
He rehabilitated Chaucer by tricking him up in buckled shoes, 
silk stockings, and a wig. Yet Dryden had learned his critical 
trade too late, and could himself be accused of inelegancies by 
the posture-masters of a later generation. 

Thus Dr Johnson again: 

He had a vanity, unworthy of his abilities, to show, as may be 
suspected, the rank of the company with whom he lived, by the 
use of French words, which had then crept into conversation. . . . 

His faults of negligence are beyond recital. Such is the un- 
evenness of his composition, that ten lines are seldom found 
together without something of which the reader is ashamed. 
Dryden was no rigid judge of his own pages; he seldom struggled 
after supreme excellence, but snatched in haste what was within 
his reach; and when he could content others, was himself con- 
tented. He had more music than Waller, more vigour than 
Denham, and more nature than Cowley; and from his contem- 
poraries he was in no danger. Standing therefore in the highest 
place, he had no care to rise by contending with himself; but 
while there was no name above his own, was willing to enjoy 
fame on the easiest terms. 


At the turn of the century, a delicate and precocious boy, 
named Alexander Pope, persuaded some friends to take him to 
Will’s and introduce him to Dryden. Pope seems to have 
decided at once that Dryden’s position would suit him well and 
that he would gain it by hook or crook. He had escaped regular 
schooling since early childhood, and now set himself a course in 
modern English literature, paying special attention to Dryden 
and to translations from Italian, French, Greek, and Latin 
poetry. William Walsh, a critic of repute, told young Pope: 


. . . that there was one way left of excelling: for though we 
had several great poets, we never had one great poet that was 
correct, and desired me to make that my study and aim. 


A neighbour then introduced Pope to the French critics, Rene le 
Bossu, Rene Rapin, and Boileau, whom he mugged up in the 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 

original. At the age of seventeen, being prevented by his Catho- 
licism from conquering either of the Universities, he set out to 
conquer Town, and headed straight for Will’s. 

When I read English Literature at Oxford, my moral tutor 
reproached me for a report sent in by one of his colleagues: 
Tt is suggested, Mr Graves, that you prefer some authors to 
others. Well, I still hold that the whole period between, say, 
Marvell and Blake was poetically barren, except for a few resolute 
blades of green grass showing up here and there between the 
marble paving stones. By all means let historians of English 
literature consider The Age of Dryde?i and The Age of Pope. 
As Nature abhors a vacuum, so does literary history; and Dryden 
and Pope were certainly the dominant figures of their days. But 
(and this but is introduced by a great A, little a, bouncing B), 
English poets do not wear wigs; they wear their own hair — while 
it lasts. And the force inspiring them is love, controlled by 
reason; not rhetoric controlled by timidity; not correctness con- 
trolled by cynicism. 

My father gave me a strictly Classical education, which meant 
that for several years I composed Latin verses once a week 
throughout term-time. Latin being a dead language, I could 
dissociate this classroom activity from the private writing of 
poems in my cubicle by the light of a pocket torch. I came of a 
large Victorian family and, at home, excelled in parlour games. 
This game of Latin Verse Composition challenged my wits. 

I had to be meticulous about quantity — I well remember the big 
Male I won, when I first started, for carelessly ending a hexa- 
meter composition on the diving-bell with the words Bona 
Machina.'^ And I had to make Virgil or Ovid my exemplars in 
metrical correctness. But more important still was the poetic 
vocabulary. If asked to versify: ‘Aeneas’s fleet sailed north-east 
from Mt Eryx to Italy*, I learned to wrap it up like this, with the 
help of Smith’s Classical dictionary: ‘Daedalus’s tasteless honey- 
offering to the Dardanian leader’s smiling grandmother having 
been left behind on the heathered couch of the Argonaut, the 
prows of destiny cleft the caerulean plain of Cronos’s trident- 
armed son, slantingly impelled to the Ausonian shore by kindly 

* When I gave this lecture, my audience looked puzzled, and I had to 
explain that the proper scansion of these words was not bond mdchindy but 
bdnd mdchind, 

[32] 


THE AGE OF OBSEQUIOUSNESS 

bulging Favonian cheeks.* The Grains ad Parnassum suggested 
minor evasions of the difficulties provoked by an originally 
foreign metre — the natural Latin metre was the Saturnian; and 
if I doubted whether a word might be legitimate in poetry of the 
ironically named Golden Age^ I could consult my Lewis and Short. 
So I learned exactly in what a Grains ad Parnassnm spirit 
eighteenth-century odes and pastorals were written; and how 
easy it was to compose mock-heroic satires on the Charterhouse 
Masters, from sheer boredom with the literary epic. 

Here is Dr Johnson on Pope: 


Alexander Pope was born in London, May 22 , id88, of parents 
whose rank or station was never ascertained: we are informed 
that they were of ‘gentle blood*; that his father was of a family 
of which the Earl of Downe was the head; and that his mother 
was the daughter of William Turner, Esquire, of York, who 
had likewise three sons, one of whom had the honour of being 
killed, and the other of dying, in the service of Charles the First; 
the third was made a general officer in Spain, from whom the 
sister inherited what sequestrations and forfeitures had left in 
the family. This, and this only, is told by Pope; who is more 
willing, as I have heard observed, to show what his father was 
not, than what he was. It is allowed that he grew rich by trade; 
but whether in a shop or on the Exchange was never discovered, 
till Mr. Tyers told, on the authority of Mrs. Racket, that he was 
a linen-draper in the Strand. Both parents were Papists. 


Dr Johnson then mentions Pope*s deformed body, his rigorous 
self-education and his megalomania: ‘as he confesses, he thought 
himself the greatest genius that ever was.’ The schemes and 
shifts by which Pope made himself not merely a posture-master, 
but a dictator, are common knowledge. He began by disclaiming 
originality — his Windsor Forest was an avowed imitation of 
Denham’s Cooper s Hill\ and by inspiring pity and making full 
use of his one physical asset, a beautifully modulated voice, to 
secure introductions to the nobility and the chief literary figures 

n y Wycherley, Congreve, Addison, and the rest. As 

E)r Johnson notes: ‘Pope was through his whole life ambitious 
Ot splendid acquaintance.’ And the more splendid it became, the 
cooler grew his relations with the less splendid. 

Up the ladder went this sedulous ape, continually turning 

[33] 


THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


about to bite and scratch those below him. He reached the top 
triumphantly with the Dunciad^ which he flattered Sir Robert 
Walpole into laying before the King and Queen — though he 
later changed the hero-victim from Lewis Theobald to the King’s 
own Laureate, Colley Cibber. A new departure: hitherto poets 
had felt themselves bound by a sacred tie, despite occasional 
‘flyting’ matches, staged as a tournament of wit. Ben Jonson 
had voluntarily jailed himself in the company of colleagues who 
expected to be docked of their ears for treason; and showed 
himself as generous in his praise of contemporaries as just in his 
censure. Nobody had ever thought of securing the Prime 
Minister’s support for a general libel on humbler colleagues. 

Pope, not having a University degree, solved his social pro- 
blems by claiming gentle birth, on however doubtful grounds, 
and then bestowing his patrician praise on men like ‘low-born 
Allen’ of Bath, who had achieved fame despite their plebeian 
origins. He solved his economic problems by the subscription 
list — persuading friends to rope in subscribers for a translation 
of the Iliad (though he knew practically no Greek), and later for 
a translation of the Odyssey (which he used ill-paid hacks to help 
him complete). With the large sums of money that accrued he 
bought annuities, representing a high rate of interest on the 
capital, and could thereafter afford to despise the ‘unabashed 
Defoe’ and other low hand-to-mouth writers. To set a good 
moral example he complained: 

Chaucer s worst ribaldries are learned by rote 

And beastly Skelton Heads of Houses quote . . . 

But to show that he himself was beyond criticism, he published 
a smutty — ‘smutty’ is the exact word — Imitation of Chaucer^ 
‘done by the author in his youth’. And the extraordinary thing 
is that, as a technician even in the limited field to which he con- 
fined himself. Pope was an extremely poor one. 

If I had time, I should be charmed to take you line by line 
through any long poem of Pope’s you pleased, demonstrating 
its technical incompetency when judged by the standards of his 
predecessors and successors. Pope has no control of his s^Sy he 
does not sufficiently vary his vowel sounds, his antitheses are 
forced, his poetic vocabulary inexact, his inversions of syntax are 

[34] 



THE AGE OF OBSEQUIOUSNESS 

not only un-English but misleading. As a test of my opinion, 
while preparing this lecture, I opened Popes W orks at random, 
and came across this six-line passage from his Imitations of 
Horace. It should have been carried through three more drafts 
at least. 

Let Envy howl^ while Heavens whole chorus sings^ 

And bark at honour not conferred by Kings . . . 

Envy and Heaven^ like howl^ while^ and whole^ are too close in 
sound to occur decently in the same line. Howl^ Heaven^ and 
whole are over-alliterative. Chorus sings is not as tuneful as the 
sense requires. The suggested antithesis between the Heavenly 
Chorus and royal honours can hardly be intended. 

Let Flattery sickening see the incense rise 
Sweet to the world and grateful to the skies. . . . 

Pope’s s s are quite out of hand here. And does he mean that 
Flattery sickens others, or that Flattery itself falls sick.^ And if 
the latter, was this sickness antecedent to the sight of rising 
incense, or due to it.^ 

Do ‘the skies’ mean merely the sky, to which the fumes 
ascend, as opposed to the earth; or do they mean God’s Heaven, 
as opposed to this world of men.^ And is the incense a flattering 
incense, or is it an incense which all devout Catholics, like Pope, 
are required to burn.^ 

' Truth guards the poet^ sanctifies the line 

And makes immortal^ verse so mean as mine. 

The incense, the world, the skies, the poet, the line! Five the^s 
in nineteen words. Pope could never control his definite article. 
And does ‘the line’ stand for the lines of a poet’s verse, or the 
line of succession — as he uses it three couplets later, -fies the 
line is ugly. Makes immortal^ verse so mean as mine is over- 
alliterative again, and the inversion of ‘ makes verse so mean as 
mine immortal ’ calls for an awkward comma to separate immortal 
from verse — otherwise the sense would be: ‘And makes even 
immortal verse as mean as mine’. 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 

The Dunciad (its revision provoked by a fancied slight from 
Cibber in the matter of a stage-crocodile) was supposedly aimed 
at dullness. But is anything duller in the world than the ideal of 
correctness, even if not seriously framed? 

One result of Pope’s largely successful attempt to put con- 
temporary verse into a strait-jacket of which he held the key 
(and buried this in his coffin at Twickenham), was the virtual 
disappearance of personal Muses. Skelton had honoured his Jane 
Scroop; Donne his Anne More — though he never mentioned 
her by name, and laid a curse on anyone who thought he knew it; 

Ben Jonson his Lady Venetia Digby, of whom he wrote at her 
death: 


T were time that I dy^d tooy now she is dead^ 

Who was my Muse, and life 
The spirit that I wrote with. 

All that was good, or great in me she weavd. 

And set it forth; the rest were cobwebs fne. 

Spun out in name of some of the old Nine, 

To hang a window or make darke the roome. 

Till swept away, th* were cancelV d with a broomel 


of all I sey*d. 
and conceiv'd^ 


By the rules of Ben Jonson’s Apollo Room, ‘chosen women* 
{lectae feminae) might not be debarred from entry; but what 
woman of reputation would have been admitted to Will’s Coffee 
House sixty years later? Romantic love, forbidden by the Puritans 
as a seduction and snare, was disavowed at the Restoration in 
favour of a rakish carnality. It is a long way from Dowland’s 
if it was Dowland’s — ^ Deare, if you change. Til never choose 
again , to Rochester’s modeish lines: 


All my past life is mine no more. 
The flying hours are gone. 

Like transitory dreams given o*er. 
Whose images are kept in store 
By memory alone. 


The time that is to come, is not; 

How can it then be mine? 

The present moment's all my lot. 
And that, as fast as it is got, 
Phillis, is only thine, 

[36] 


THE AGE OF OBSEQUIOUSNESS 

Then talk not of inconstancy^ 

False hearts^ and broken vows: 

Ij I by miracle can be 

This live-long minute true to thee^ 

'Tis all that heaven allows. 

The true lover was unmasked, as he has been unmasked again 
today by Doctors Freud and Kinsey; and Pope’s rider, that 

Every woman is at heart a rake . . , 

was tacitly accepted for the next hundred years to excuse men for 
treating women as, at best, an amusing, if irksome, sexual con- 
venience. Martha Blount may have been Pope’s mistress, or 
even his wife (though this is only a surmise), and became his 
residuary legatee; but she does not figure in his poems and is 
not even implied by them, however shadowily. 

So, although the age abounded in impersonal Chloes, Amandas, 
and Belindas, the only personal Muse I can recall was Swift’s 
Stella. Swift may seem to be joking in his To Stella Visiting Me 
in My Sickness (1720), when he writes: 

Pallas^ observing Stellas wit 
W %s more than for her sex was fit^ 

And that her beauty,^ soon or late^^ 

Might breed confusion in the state. 

In high concern for human-kind, 

Fbc d honour in her infant mind, . . . 

And lest we should for honour take 
The drunken quarrels of a rake; 

Or think it seated in a scar. 

Or on a proud triumphal car. 

Or in the payment of a debt 
W 2 lose with sharpers at picquet; 

Or when a whore in her vocation 
Keeps punctual to an assignation . . . 

Let Stellals fair example preach 
A lesson she alone can teach . . , 

Ten thousand oaths upon record 
Are not so sacred as her word: 

The world shall in its atoms end. 

Ere Stella can deceive a friend. 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 

But Swift is in earnest. My old friend Richard Ashe King once 
remarked: 

I do not envy the man who is untouched by the infantile 
prattle of Swift’s Journal to Stella — written in the intervals of his 
dictating the policy of England at home and abroad — or who is 
unmoved by the white-hot agony of his anxiety during her 
illness, or of his anguish after her death. 

Dryden had told Swift at Wiirs: ‘Cousin Jonathan, you will 
never be a poet!’ And indeed, Swift never did become a poet 
of the Age of Obsequiousness- Like Defoe, Fielding, Dr Johnson 
and other writers known for their generous hearts and incor- 
ruptible character,* he renounced poetry in favour of prose: 
except for the composition of trifles. But these trifles, though 
darkened by a morbid horror of man’s physical circumstances, 
demonstrate the proper use of English: they are clear, simple, 
inventive, pungent, unaffected, original, generous, utterly out- 
spoken. 

A plea can be made on Pope’s behalf that Swift counted him in 
the first rank of his friends. But even this plea, I think, fails. 
Pope seems to have exerted all his charm on Swift; knowing how 
cruelly Swift’s pen would have scorched him up if it had come 
to a quarrel, but how readily he could be won over as a loyal and 
industrious ally by a pretence of sincere friendship. It was only 
when Swift’s wits began to fail that Pope showed the true quality 
of his friendship. He routed out Swift’s early letters to himself 
and amended them in his own favour, as he had done with 
Wycherley’s. 

No, I am not altogether ungrateful to the eighteenth century. 

I pay the tribute of a sentimental sigh to such pleasant simplicities 
as John Newton’s: 

There is a land of pure delight 
Where saints immortal reign; 

Infinite day excludes the night 
And pleasures banish pain, 

* Defoe’s intelligence work first for the Tories, then for the Whigs (after 
1714) while the Tories thought him still their man, proves a sense of humour 
rather than a failure in integrity. 

[38] 



THE AGE OF OBSEQUIOUSNESS 

There everlasting Spring abides 
And never -withering flowers. 

Death like a narrow stream divides 
That heavenly land from ours. 

and Richard Graves's: 

Upon the bridge's coping-stone 
The loitering boy doth lean alone^ 

And watches with a steadfast look 
The falling waters of the brook. . . . 

as I remember certain pleasant eighteenth-century wallpapers, 
and formal gardens, and silk handkerchiefs, and magnificent 
chairs and sets of table silver. Also, one would have to be hard- 
hearted indeed to dislike either Gray or Collins. But for any 
sense of personal poetry (except in Swift who was, of course, 
educated at Kilkenny School and Trinity College, Dublin; and 
Goldsmith, another Irishman) one must adventure among 
scribblers and dunces. Goldsmith is exceptional because he had 
roved about in low company through several countries, rambling 
and gambling his money away, and would no sooner have 
thought of buying an annuity than of committing murder. 
Besides, The Deserted Village^ despite its air of formality, is a 
true poem; because, like Swift, Goldsmith was in earnest. He was 
offering, disguised as an essay on the break-up of English village 
society, a lament for the ills of Ireland, modelled on contem- 
porary Irish minstrel songs — walk, description, meditation, 
moral vision, invocation of the Goddess; even the distressful 
crone is there, and the damsel who tears out her hair in handfuls. 
Auburn really lies in County Roscommon; the poem is full of 
personal recollections, and glows with sorrowful anger. 

Eighteenth-century scribblers and dunces wrote such splendid 
drinking-songs as: 

Herds a health to the King and a lasting peace^ 

To faction an end and to wealth increase^ 

O come let us drink it while we have breathy 
For there's no drinking after Death; 

And he who will this health deny 
Down among the dead men let him lie/ 

[39] 


D 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 

And there were low-life ballads, such as Wednesbury Cocking^ 
to set your hair on end; I should like to recite the whole of the 
Cocking^ because I have it by heart, but have time only for the 
serene opening verses; 


At JVedneshury there was a cocking^ 

A match between Newton and Scrogginsj 
The colliers and nailers left worky 
And all to old Spittle's went jogging. 

To see this noble sporty 
Many noblemen resorted; 

And though they had hut little money y 
Yet that little they freely sported. 


There was Jeffery and Colhorn from Hamptony 
And Dusty from Bilston was there; 
Flummery he came from Darlastony 
And he was as rude as a bear. 

There was old Will from Walsall y 

And Smacker from Westbromwich come; 
Blind Robin he came from Rowley y 
And staggering he went home. 


And there was Defoe’s True Bom Englishman', 

The Royal Refugee our Breed restoresy 

With Foreign Courtiers, and with Foreign Whores: 

And carefully repeoples us again y 

Throughout his La^yy Longy Lascivious Reign; 

With such a blest and True-born English Fryy 
As much Illustrates our Nobility , , . 

French Cooksy Scotch Pedlarsy ant/ Italian Whoresy 
Were all made Lords y or Lords' progenitors. 

Beggars and Bastards by his new Creationy 
Much multiply' d the Peerage of the Nation; 

Who will be ally e'er one short Age runs o'ery 
As True-Born Lords as those we had before. 

This brings me to the problem of satire. Poetry has always 
had two hands, the left and the right; the left for cursing and the 

[40] 



THE AGE OF OBSEQUIOUSNESS 

right for blessing, as there is a right-handed and a left-handed 
worship of the Goddess Khali in India; and as, among the 
Mohammedans, the left hand undertakes certain tasks from which 
the right shrinks. Yet it is axiomatic that the right hand must be 
used to bless only what deserves blessing, and that the left may 
curse only what deserves cursing. Marvelfs satire was legitimate, 
because generous. Samuel Butler's satire in Hudibras was legiti- 
mate, because he had served under the Puritan colonel whom 
he ridicules, and been forced for years to swallow back his 
Royalist spittle. Defoe's satire was legitimate: he had been 
abused as a foreigner by ‘True-Born Englishmen*. And though 
he may be blamed for indicting a whole nation with: 


. . . France^ 

Where mankind lives in haste^ and thrives by chance^ 

A dancing nation fickle and untrue 

Have oft undone themselves and others too. . . , 


the times required that this should be jokingly said. But Pope's 
satire was patently illegitimate, because neither provoked nor 
generous. Professional standards in English, as opposed to 
Continental, poetry, have for centuries insisted that satire should 
not reflect private rancour or hope of personal gain. Swift 

understood this well enough, perhaps because the principle was 
first formulated in Ireland. 


I shall now leave Twickenham and Grub Street — eventually 

disinfected of its associations by being renamed ‘Milton Street* 

—and take you over to ancient Connaught. My excuse will be 

the elucidation of Rosalind’s phrase in As You Like It: ‘I have 

never been so berhymed since I was an Irish rat.* Rosalind was 

referring to a seventh-century satire, The Proceedings of the Grand 

JSardtc Academy, which was not translated into English until 

some ninety years ago. I have no notion by what chance she, or 
ohakespeare, came to hear of it. 

of "Sf how three hundred professors and students 

in Academy, led by the Chief Bard Seanchan 

abused the munificent hospitality of Guaire 
King of Connaught, with the threat of satire if he refused them 
anything; until one Marvan, the Royal Swineherd, took ven- 
geance on them for this blackmail, and for their murder of his 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


own gifted white pig. Marvan’s pig was no ordinary pig, but 
had been at once his physician, his music-maker and his messen- 
ger; and the murder lay at the door of the professor’s greedy old 
foster-mother, who would not be satisfied until Guaire presented 
her with a great collar of its lard. 

Eumaeus the swineherd of the Odyssey is addressed as ‘god- 
like’, an adjective which Classical scholars ignorantly translate 
either ‘honest’ or ‘worthy’. In Odysseus’s Ithaca, as in ancient 
Ireland and Wales, the swineherd served the sow-headed Phorcis, 
Goddess of Death and Poetic Inspiration; Eumaeus might there- 
fore be called ‘Chief Prophet of Heaven and Earth’, like his 
colleague Marvan. The death of Marvan’s pig is a mythographic 
way of recording the murder of inspired poetry by a new-fangled 
academicism. At first, the bards despised Marvan as an inter- 
loper, and asked him to prove his right to converse with them 
on equal terms. But his poetic passport was a mantle of pro- 
phetic wind; and though these professors were skilled in astro- 
nomy, mathematics, cosmology, law, cyphers, counterpoint, 
and all the latest prosodic fashions, they could not stand up 
against a Royal Swineherd when it came to a battle of wits. 

Seanchan asked Marvan pompously: ‘Tell me, peasant, what 
was the antecedent of the First Cause.^’ Marvan did not cite the 
metaphysical arguments of the Early Fathers, or Aristotle, or 
Epicurus, or Heraclitus, but answered simply and accurately: 
‘Blind nuts!’ — which, for me, remains the only possible answer 
to such a stupid question, though it might not go down very well 
nowadays in a D.Phil. viva. The hazel was the ancient Irish and 
Welsh symbol of Divine Wisdom, and the First Cause must 
therefore be the nut from whose kernel grew the Sacred Hazel 
which, according to tradition, overshadowed the Salmon-pool 
of Enlightenment. So what, in poetical terms, could the ante- 
cedent of the First Cause be, but a blind nut — a nut without a 

kernel.^ , 

Marvan answered magisterially every one of the professors 
questions, and in return humbled them with problems beyond 
their power to solve — for instance, they could not even guess 
at the true origin of the poet’s harp, or of poetic metre. Inciden- 
tally, he treated them to inspired but sorry revelations of what 
their wives were doing at home. When the three hundred had 
failed on all counts, he put a bond on them, which debarred them 

[42] 



THE AGE OF OBSEQUIOUSNESS 

from ever again abusing a patron’s hospitality, or from inter- 
fering with the affairs of others — ‘thenceforth to the womb of 
Judgement’. 

Seanchan’s end came when, after rhyming ten rats to death 
for stealing his dinner scraps, he turned his petulant rage on the 
united cats of Ireland. He announced that they had neglected 
their job, and satirized Irusan, their King, by calling him ‘Otter’s 
leavings, clumsy claws, with a dandyish drooping tail like a 
cow’s’. 

The storyteller continues; 

It was told to Seanchan that Irusan was on his way coming 
to kill him; and he requested Guaire to come with the nobility 
of Connaught to protect him against Irusan. They all came 
around him, and had not been long there when they heard a 
vibrating, impetuous and impressive sound, similar to that pro- 
duced by a tremendously raging fiery furnace in full blaze; and 
it appeared to them that there was not in Connaught a plough 
bullock larger than Irusan. 

His appearance was as follows: blunt-snouted, rapacious, 
panting, determined, jagged-eared, broad-breasted, prominent- 
jointed, sharp and smooth-clawed, split-nosed, sharp and rough- 
toothed, thick-snouted, nimble, powerful, deep-flanked, terror- 
striking, angry, extremely vindictive, quick, purring, glare-eyed; 
and he came towards them in that similitude. He passed amongst 
them generally, but did not stop till he reached to the place 
where Seanchan was. He took hold of him by one arm, jerked 
him on his back, and returned with him by the same way as he 
had come, for he had no other object in view but to fetch away 
Seanchan. Seanchan now had recourse to flattery of Irusan, 

praising his leap, his progress in his running, his power, strength 
and activity. . . . 

But it was too late. The rats were avenged. 

The professional moral of all this is that when a natural urge 
m poets to resort and debate together— as Shakespeare, Ben 
Jonson, Drayton, and the rest did at the Mermaid — exploited 
by hterary politicians, and cabals are formed, poetry is in danger. 

And that arch-poets who petulantly rhyme a few rats to death 

meamng the ignorant poetasters — should take care not to satirize 
the King Cat, the emissary of the Cat-goddess. They must 
remember that the source of all poetry is not reason, but the wind 

[43] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 

of inspiration. Only swine can see the wind. And, since I must 
not hold anything back from you, the origin of the poet’s harp 
was the wind which blew on the sinews of a whale’s skeleton in 
the days of Macuel son of Miduel; and metre originated in the 
days of Lamiach from the sound of two hammers of different 
weight beaten alternately on an anvil. However, the kennings 
of these riddles — like the kennings of Seanchan’s satire on Irusan 
— are not to be found in Boileau. I reserve them for my fifth 
lecture, when I shall deal with the technical side of poetry. 


[44] 



LECTURE III 


THE ROAD TO RYDAL MOUNT 


T he Seven Years’ War shook the absolutist regime set up 
by Louis XIV, inherited by Louis XV, and either copied 
or envied by their royal contemporaries throughout Europe. 
Eventually the revolt of the American colonies, brought to a 
successful finish by French intervention, touched off the French 
Revolution. Since absolutism had been extended from the 
political field to that of philosophy, the arts, and literature, this 
general collapse in France, which now threatened England too, 
sent the more inquisitive English poets searching back in history 
to find out where a false step had been taken. They decided that 
Diyden, Pope, Addison, and other poets of the Age of Obse- 
quiousness were mistaken: that poetry had not always been a 
drawng-room product, but had at one time implied a warm 
relationship between all classes — the early English kings, for 
instance, had ‘dear comrades’ not subjects. From which they 
deduced that a man was a man for a’ that, and for a* that, and 
for a’ that; and that the current poetic technique was artificial 
and constrictive. As Romantic Revivalists they dismounted 
from what Keats irreverently called ‘the rocking horse’ of the 
heroic couplet; they cultivated the Elizabethans, ceased to court 
the peerage, avoided public life, and did not feel obliged to live 
Lown. Most of them were avowed, if ineffective, revolu- 
tionaries. Blake walked the streets of London in a red cap of 
Liberty; Wordsworth carried the British flag in a Jacobin pro- 
cession and attracted the notice of Pitt’s secret police; Shdley 
sealed a letter to the Duke of Norfolk with a revolutionary 

Hazlitt wrote, they scorned ‘degrees, priority, place, 
and the distinctions of birth’, and ‘were surrounded, in company 
with the Muses, by a rabble of idle apprentices and Botany Bay 
convicts, female vagrants, gipsies, meek daughters in the family 

[45] ^ 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


of Christ, of idiot boys and mad mothers, and after them “owls 
and night-ravens flew”,’ 

Others, of course, like Keats, loved the Gothic past more than 
they welcomed the democratic or the pantisocratic future. ‘O 
Chatterton, how very sad thy fate!’ wrote Keats. For Chatter- 
ton’s failure to secure Horace Walpole’s patronage by means of 
his Rowley forgeries had reduced him to writing shilling-a-line 
satires on the Duke of Grafton, the Earl of Bute, and the Princess 
of Wales, until he expired in poverty. Keats himself felt the lack 
of a patron; his publisher’s lure, Cap and Bells^ if not his diploma 
pieces Hyperion and Endymion^ prove that he would have 
attempted any poetical subject within reason suggested to. him 
by a coroneted patron. But fate had attached him to Leigh 
Hunt’s party; and to court the Tories would have been disloyal. 
Moreover, as a result of the wonderful profits made by Moore 
and Byron, who gave the large romantically-inclined public 
what it wanted, individual patronage waned. ‘Why shouldn’t 
other poets do the same?’ the peers began to ask. This was all 
very well for Samuel Rogers, a rich banker; and for Crabbe, a 
country parson; and for Shelley, who had private means; and 
for Lamb, with his not very demanding clerkship in the India 
Office. But it seemed mighty hard on John Clare. 

I can best explain my feelings about professional standards by 
contrasting the careers of two early nineteenth-century poets: 
Clare and Wordsworth — Clare, who began as a servant of the 
public, but ended as a devotee of the Goddess; Wordsworth, 
who reversed the process — Clare, with his growing sense of 
what poetry demanded; Wordsworth, with his growing sense of 
what the public demanded. 

Clare, a labourer’s son, was mouse-poor, and quite without 
influence or connexions. Though his first book of poems (1820) 
proved immediately successful, it sold well only because poetry 
happened to come all at once into fashion, for dubious reasons. 
Since Taylor, his publisher, who had seen his work by accident, 
was billing him truthfully enough as an ‘English peasant poet*, 
Clare became a nine days* wonder. He had clay on his bools, 
hay-seed in his hair, genius in his eye, spoke as charmingly odd 
a dialect as Burns, yet was able to forge a neat, melodious pastoral 
rhyme that would not have disgraced Robert Bloomfield, 
William Cowper, or even the self-elected High Priest of Nature, 

[46] 



THE ROAD TO RYDAL MOUNT 


Wordsworth, Visitors came in coaches from London to the 
remote village of Helpstone, where they gaped at this miraculous 
son of toil, a rival sideshow to his contemporary, the legless and 
armless Miss Biffin, who threaded needles and worked samplers 
with her lips and teeth alone (poor creature!), Clare (poor 
creature!) similarly transcended the disadvantages of birth, 
environment and education, and though his biographers suggest 
that he disliked the label of ‘Peasant Poet*, this is not altogether 
true. He wrote an autobiographical poem under that title, and in 
his Village Minstrel romanticized himself as a Spenserian ‘Lubin*: 

Young Lubin was a peasant from his birth; 

His sire a hind born to the flail and plough^ 

To thump the corn out and to till the earthy 
The coarsest change which nature s laws allow — 

To earn his living by a sweating brow; 

Thus Lubin s early days did rugged roll^ 

And mixt in timely toil — but e'en as noWy 
Ambitious prospects fired his little souly 
And fancy soared and sungy 'bove poverty's control. 

The Village Minstrel appeared in his second volume, which sold 
badly. The third and fourth volume (1827 and 1835) were dismal 
foilures, but not because Clare refused to cater for popular taste. 
He pleased the large ‘Keepsake* public by imitations of elder 
poets^and, oddly enough, these are far closer to the originals than 
ope s, as can be seen by comparing their rival imitations of 
oir John Harington. And here Clare is making obeisance to the 
aristocratic Augustan tradition, which had reasserted its sway 
at the defeat of Revolutionary France: 

To My Oaten Reed 

Thou warble wildy of rough y rude melody y 

How oft I've woo'd thecy often thrown thee by! 

In many a doubtful rapture touching theCy 
Waking thy rural notes in many a sigh: 

^Fearing the wisey the wealthy y proud and high. 

Would scorn as vain thy lowly ecstasy y 
Deeming presumptuous thy uncultur'd themes. 

Thus vainly courting Taste's unblemish' d eycy 
To list a simple labourer's artless dreams. . . , 

[47] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


In the 1 820’s, unless a poet could take his place naturally and 
gracefully at a gentleman’s table, cut or keep out of sight his 
plebeian connexions, and move to Town, he still might not hope 
for advancement. Then what was to be done with Clare, how- 
ever untainted by Jacobinism and however obligingly he tuned 
his oaten reed.^ He had married Patty Turner, a poor illiterate 
fellow-villager, merely to make an honest woman of her; now 
lived in an insanitary cottage full of ragged, ailing brats; worked 
as a day labourer; and never hankered for city life. The fashion- 
able sightseers who visited Helpstone paid no shilling entrance- 
fee for the privilege of wasting Clare’s time; they scattered a few 
compliments, wrinkled their noses at the sour smell of poverty, 
and drove away again. Their visits, like his week-long rhyming 
fits, merely discouraged the local farmers from giving him steady 
employment. A general slump occurred in the sales of poetry, 
and Clare slowly went to pieces under the strain. 

A fund was, indeed, raised to keep him afloat, but this proved 
insufficient to feed and clothe his family of seven children. And 
though it is true that an adequate income might have kept him 
from sinking so deep into the trough of melancholy, it would 
not have assuaged his loneliness. The only cure for his disease 
would have been the society of his fellow-poets. Yet it was not 
until about the year 1830, when he grew weary of courting 
‘Taste’s unblemish’d eye’, that he graduated as a true poet. He 
had by now been favoured with a dream vision of the White 
Goddess of Poetry, and henceforth his companions should have 
been those who bore her seal on their brows. He wrote: 

These dreams of a beautiful presence, a woman deity, gave the 
sublimest conceptions of beauty to my imagination; and being 
last night with the same presence, the lady divinity left such a 
vivid picture of her visits in my sleep, dreaming of dreams, 
that I could no longer doubt her existence. So I wrote them 
down to prolong the happiness of my faith in believing her my 
guardian genius. 

But where, then, were his fellow-poets.^ In 1820 there had been 
talk of a friendly exchange of poetic opinions between Clare and 
Keats, who knew the Goddess as La Belle Dame Sans Merely 
and such a meeting might have done both of them a deal of good. 

[48] 



THE ROAD TO RYDAL MOUNT 

Keats, born a Cockney, criticized an early nature poem of Clare’s 
by saying that ‘the Description too much prevailed over the 
sentiment’; whereas Clare wrote of Keats: ‘He often described 
Nature as she appeared to his fancies and not as he would have 
described her had he witnessed the things he described.’ How- 
ever, this meeting had never come off; and now Keats was dead, 
and so was Shelley; and Clare’s friendships with Darley, Lamb, 
and Cary, limited to letters and very occasional visits, died away. 

Clare seems to have stumbled accidentally upon the solution 
to his dilemma; perhaps he found it in the Book of Samuel^ where 
David escaped from the Philistines by feigning madness. The 
best way to discourage unwelcome visitors was casually to 
identify himself with Lord Byron or with Tom Cribb, the prize- 
fighter; such deceitful fictions soon scattered them. But being 
already cut off from village society by presuming above his 
station, he found that the loneliness increased. He wrote in a 
letter: 

I live here among the ignorant like a lost man in fact like one 
whom the rest seems careless of having anything to do with — 
they hardly dare talk in my company for fear I should mention 
them in my writings & I find more pleasure in wandering die 
fields than in mixing among my silent neighbours who are 
insensible of everything but toiling & talking of it & that to no 
purpose. 

The distressed Patty was not his equal, either in intellect or 
sensibility, and as an anodyne he took to deceiving himself with 
another sort of fiction. He contrived to believe that he was 
really married to Mary Joyce, a farmer’s daughter four years 
younger than himself, with whom he had been passionately in 
love as a boy, but whom he had never aspired to marry. She 
became his pastoral Muse, the perpetual Other Woman. After 
the failure of his fourth book of poems in 1835, he turned his 
back on reality and lived more and more in the lost world of his 
boyhood, peopled only by beasts, birds, and Mary. In 1837, his 
London friends sent him to a private mental home in Epping 
Forest, from which he ran away in 1841; but six months later 
by order of the local gentry whom he had libellously lampooned 
in The Parish^ was confined to Northampton General Lunatic 

[49] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


Asylum, where he remained until his death in 1864. The charge 
was: ‘years addicted to poetical prosings’. 

Clare’s lunacy, being self-inflicted, was only partial — as when 
recruits shoot off their trigger fingers rather than put bullets 
through their heads. It did not affect his poetic capacity — if, as it 
seems, he wrote and talked certifiable nonsense merely to dis- 
courage visitors. Though he ceased from satire or such low-life 
ballads as The Helpstone Statutes^ he broke quite new ground 
in The Dying Child', 

He could not die when trees were green^ 

For he loved the time too well. 

His little handsy when flowers were seen^ 

W ere held for the bluebelf 

As he was carried o'er the green. 

His eye glanced at the white-nosed bee^ 

He knew those children of the Spring: 

When he was well and on the lea 
He held one in his hands to sing 
Which filled his heart with glee. 

Infants^ the children of the Spring! 

How can an infant die 

When butterflies are on the wing^ 

Green grass ^ and such a sky? 

How can they die at Spring? 

And his T am, but what I am who cares or knows.^’ and T lost 
the love of Heaven* are already among the recognized glories of 
English poetry. Since in those days warders had officially stopped 
flogging lunatics, and doctors had not yet developed drastic 
therapeutic training or shock treatment, he had a less unhappy 
time than might be supposed — at any rate, until the governors 
decided to deny even harmless inmates leave to wander freely 
about the town, and so turned an asylum into a prison. 

How good was Clare.^ At his best he was very good indeed, 
with a natural simplicity supported by a remarkable sense of 
language; he meant what he said, considered it well before he 
wrote it down and wrote with love. Most of his poems were 

[yo] 



THE ROAD TO RYDAL MOUNT 

about Nature because, after all, he had never been anything but 
a countryman and described only what he knew. By comparison, 
Wordsworth had a very cursory knowledge of wild life; he did 
not get up early enough in the morning. (Wordsworth on Nature 
is like Virgil on boxing; I prefer Theocritus, who had obviously 
been a bit of a bruiser himself, as his account of the Amycus- 
Pollux match shows.) Clare wrote a great deal of descriptive 
verse on the nesting habits of particular birds, and the queer 
ways of wild animals and insects, and on country people as part 
of the landscape. But Clare never bores, being always precise 
and economical and relying on patient observation; besides, he 
had somehow acquired the rare faculty of knowing how and when 
to end a poem. His obsession with Nature made him think of a 
poem as a living thing, rather than a slice cut from the cake of 
literature, and his poems are still alive. I find myself repeating 
some of them without having made a conscious effort at memor- 
ization. And though it was taken as a symptom of madness that 
he one day confided in a visitor: T know Gray — I know him 
weir, I shall risk saying here, with equal affection: T know 
Clare; I know him well. We have often wept together.' 

There was no Age of Clare, as there was no Age of Smart, 
the magnificence of whose Song to David (1763) makes all other 
poems of the day look sick and sorry. Smart had also vainly 
and too long courted Taste's unblemish’d eye — going so far as 
to translate Pope’s Ode on St Cecilias Day^ an imitation of 
Dryden’s on the same subject, into Latin! He wrote A Song to 
David in a lunatic asylum, and when his collected poems were 
published in 1791, it was omitted as ‘not acceptable to the 
reader’. This poem is formally addressed to David — Smart 
knew that he was no madder than King David had been, and a 
tradition survives that he scrabbled the verses with a key on the 
walls of his cell; but the deity whom he really celebrated was the 
central figure of the Muse Triad, the Lady of Wild Things: 

S trong is the horse upon his speed; 

Strong in pursuit the rapid glede^ 

Which makes at once his game; 

S trong the tall ostrich on the ground; 

Strong through the turbulent profound 
Shoots xiphias to his aim, 

[51] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


Strong is the lion — like a coal 
H'ls eyeball — like a bastion s mole 
His chest against the foes: 

Strong the gier-eagle on his saily 
Strong against tidcy tK enormous whale 
Emerges y as he goes. 

But even Dr Johnson, who liked Smart personally and did all 
he could to help him, had no use at all for A Song to Davidy and 
once ended an argument as to who was the better poet — Smart 
or a dullard called Derrick— by saying: ‘Sir, there is no settling 
the point of precedency between a louse and a flea/ 

So as I was saying, there was no Age of Clare, and no Age of 
Smart, but there was an Age of Wordsworth. You will find it 
in all the literary histories. ‘The Age oP is a political term. One 
may legitimately talk of the Age of Pericles, because Pericles was 
the most energetic and gifted statesman of fifth-century Athens; 
and Athens was the most energetic and gifted city-state in 
Greece, as Greece was the most energetic and gifted country in 
Europe or Asia. One can similarly talk of the Age of Augustus, 
or the Age of Louis XIV. But the ‘Age oP is a non-poetic 
concept, and when applied to English poets is either a misnomer 
— for instance The Age of Shakespeare wrongly suggests that 
Shakespeare was the most influential and esteemed poet of his 
day — or it means that the poet selected to name the age was a 
politician rather than a poet. 

Wordsworth came of comfortable family and got stung, 
during an adventurous visit to France in 1791-2, by the gadfly 
of Republicanism. His intention of presenting himself as a 
leader of the Girondists was thwarted when an uncle shook the 
family purse-strings at him; whereupon he came to his senses, 
and deserted not only his revolutionary friends but his Muse, 
‘Julia* — Annette Vallon — whom he had got with child. And 
when the ‘stings of viperous remorse’ no longer pricked him, 
and he could even congratulate himself on his providential 
escape, that was the end of Wordsworth the poet. He virtuously 
led his companions back to the eighteenth-century ecclesiastical 
Tory fold from which he had strayed. Byron, who also came 
home, though on his own initiative, wrote to Murray the pub- 
lisher in 1820: 

[5:^] 



THE ROAD TO RYDAL MOUNT 


All of US — Scott, Southey, Wordsworth, Moore, Campbell, I— 
are all in the wrong . . . that we are upon a wrong revolutionary 
poetical system, or systems, not w'orth a damn in itself . . . and 
that the present and next generations will finally be of this 
opinion. ... I took Moore’s poems and my own, and some 
others, and went over them side by side with Pope’s, and I was 
really astonished (I ought not to have been) and mortified at the 
ineffable distance in point of sense, harmony, effect, and even 
Imagination^ passion and Invention^ between the little Queen 
Anne’s Man, and us of the Lower Empire. 

Though Wordsworth (as Matthew Arnold records) did not earn 
enough money by poetry to keep him in shoestrings, he managed 
to live frugally on a £900 legacy bequeathed him in 1795, which 
saved him from going to London and undertaking journalism. 
Seven years later the then Lord Lonsdale died, and his successor 
paid the Wordsworth’s a long-standing debt owed to their father. 
After another ten years Wordsworth wheedled his stamp-distri- 
butorship out of Lord Lonsdale — soon worth an annual £1,000. 
De Quincy commented enviously: ‘Money always fell in’ to 
Wordsworth, enabling him to pursue his poetic career without 
distraction. In 1842 he gave up the post, and Sir Robert Peel 
rewarded him for having done so with a £300 Civil List pension, 
and the Laureateship, which Wordsworth stipulated must be a 
sinecure. ‘All for a handful of silver he left us . . . !’ 

As a birthday present, when I was young, my father sent me 
without explanation a letter in an old man’s hand, undated and 
signed with the initials W.W. The paper and ink looked ancient, 
but since the addressee was plainly ‘Robert Graves, Esq.’, I 
began reading what seemed a personal message rather than a 
historical document. It began abruptly: 

Mr. Graves will bear in mind what I said against the phrase 
of making a Tour in Switzerland as generally understood to 
relate to Alpine Switzerland — the best thing to be done is to 
cross the Alps by as many passes as you conveniently can; 
descending into Italy and back again — to and fro. 


On turning to the end of the letter again, I discovered the 
words ‘Rydal Mt.' in the margin. The writer was none other 

[53] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


than William Wordsworth, a ‘sincere friend* of my grand- 
uncle Robert Graves, the physician. I had not yet read Words- 
worth with attention, and was prepared to modify my unfavour- 
able first impressions, for my father’s sake, if this letter gave me 
honest cause. A hasty perusal showed that it referred mostly to 
a tour of the Continent which he had made twenty years pre- 
viously, in 1820, with his wife and his sister Dorothy. So I 
reached for my Oxford edition of the PoemSy borrowed a 
Wordsworth Concordance^ and settled down to study him in 

earnest. 

Taking you up at Berne is in some respects inconvenient — as it 
leaves the Lakes of Zurich and Wallenstadt and the noble pass 
of the Via-Mala, and over the Splugen, and so down upon 
Chiavenna and the Lake of Como etc., upon your left hand. 
But as you must start from Berne it would probably be best as 
we did in 1820, to go to Thun — at T. (if you have an hour to 
spare) is a pleasant walk in the grounds of . . . 

Here it seems, Wordsworth, unable to recall the name of the 
place, consulted his Memorials of a Tour on the Continent^ but the 
relevant poem, Memorial Near the Outlet of the Lake of Thun^ 
gave him no information. So he wrote: 

. . . near the outlet of the lake 

but then scratched the words out, and abandoned the problem. 

where is a small Tablet to the memory of Alois Reding. The 
views from the Ch:yd and Castle are also very interesting — up 
the Lake to Unterbeer and Interlacken. 

I found that he had immortalized Reding’s tablet as follows; 


Around a wild and woody hill 
A gravelled pathway treading ^ 

We reached a votive Stone that bears 
The name of Aloys Reding. 


Well judged the friend who placed it there 
For silence and protection; 

And haply with a finer care 
Of dutiful affection. 

[54] 



THE ROAD TO RYDAL MOUNT 

The Sun regards it from the West 
And^ while in summer glory 
He sets^ his sinking yields a type 
Of that pathetic story. . . . 

Raising my eyebrows a little, I read on: 

The Lake of Brientz — the falls near it which we did not visit 
— are worth seeing, if you have time, but we preferred going to 
Lauterbrunnen. 

What poetic harvest had Wordsworth brought back from Brienz? 
He watched certain ‘harvest-damsels float, Homeward in their 
rugged boat. . . . The rustic maidens, every hand. Upon a Sister’s 
shoulder laid’: and heard them ‘chant as glides the boat along, 
A simple, but a touching song; To chant as Angels do above. 
The melodies of Peace in love.’ 

And over the Wengem Alp to Grindelwald — thence over the 
Schidec to Meyringham — Observe on your descent upon M. 
look for the celebrated fall of Reichenbach. From M. we gave 
a day to the Oberhasli Vail, and the famous falls of Handec — 
whence we might have proceeded over the Grimsel Pass to Un- 
teren etc., — but we preferred returning to M. — thence by side 
of the Lake of Lungern and Sarnan on to Lucerne. 

At Lucerne the Wordsworths had met a twenty-year-old 
Bostonian, Frederick Goddard, and were delighted to hear 
English spoken again, ‘while festive mirth ran wild’. Three days 
later, Goddard was drowned in the lake near Zurich and Words- 
worth mourned his fate: 

Beloved by every gentle muse 
He left his Transatlantic home. 

Europe^ a realised romance^ 

Had opened on his eager glance. 

What present bliss! what golden views! 

What stores for years to come! 

Tetchy sympathising Powers of air^ 

Tetchy ye that post der seas and lands ^ 

Herbs moistened by Virginian dew 
A most untimely grave to strew 
Whose turf may never know the care 
Oy'kindred human hands! 

[55] 


E 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


Since Goddard hailed from Massachusetts, ‘herbs moistened by 
Virginian dew* is perhaps a festive synonym for tobacco; though 
this seems a little out of key in an elegiac context. 

From Lucerne to the top of Riga — 

He means the Rigi. The Rigi ascent he celebrated in Our Lady 
of the Snows, from which a short passage may be quoted for the 
eighteenth-century ingenuity of the second line: 

Even for the Man who stops not here 
But down the irriguous valley hies. 

Thy very name, O Ladyl flings. 

O'er blooming fields and gushing springs, 

A tender sense of shadowy fears 
And chastening sympathies, 

Coleridge, by the way, held that love of mountain scenery was 
a purely literary emotion, found among mountaineers only when 
they had enjoyed a liberal education. ‘Where this is not the case, 
as among the peasantry of North Wales, the ancient mountains, 
with all their terrors and all their glories, are pictures to the blind, 
and music to the deaf.’ 

So on to the Rigi and: 

. . . thence, by the Town of Switz to Brunnen on the Uri branch 
of the Lake of the 4 Cantons. So on, by Boat to Tell’s Chapel 
and Fluellen. Then to Altorf, Amstag, to the valley of Urseren. 
Here let me observe you might cross over the Difenti, on one 
of the branches of the Rhine and thence up the Viamala to Splugen 
and over to Chiavenna, and so down the Lake of Como. This 
I did 50 years ago, only reversing it. 

By ‘50 years ago’ he means 1790 when, as an undergraduate at 
the end of his third year, he and Robert Jones went on a Long 
Vacation walking tour. Their itinerary is recorded in his Descrip- 
tive Sketches taken during a pedestrian tour among the Alps, Tell’s 
Chapel had then greatly impressed him: 

But lo! the boatman overawed, before 

The pictured fane of Tell suspends his oar, - . . 

It remains a nice question whether rowing was merely suspended 

[56] 



THE ROAD TO RYDAL MOUNT 

when the chapel hove into view, or whether the boatman dis- 
embarked and hung up his oar as a votive offering. The passage 
ends heroically: 

Where bleeding Sidney from the cup retired 
And glad Dundee in * faint hunas * expired. 

While I appreciated Wordsworth’s delicacy in disclaiming the 
authorship of ‘faint huzzas’, it seemed a pity that metrical 
exigency had changed ‘Bonnie’ to ‘Glad’. 

— or from Urseren as we did in 1820 over the St Gotard down 
by Airola, Bellingionn, Locarna, where embark to Luvina and 
thence by Ponte Tresa to Lugana. Here ascend San Salvador — - 
for the views. 

In 1821 he had apostrophized the Church of San Salvador in 
a few well-turned verses beginning: 

Thou sacred Pile . . . 

This contained a stanza which my father occasionally quoted: 

Glory and patriotic Love 

And all the Pomps of this frail * spot 

Which men call Earth* have yearned to seeky 

Associate with the simply meeky 

Religion in the sainted grove 

And in the hallowed grot. 

Then take boat for Porle^a and over the hill to Managgio — 
thence to Cannabbia thence across the lake to the promontory 
of Bellagio and from the Alcove in the Duke's grounds you see 
parts of the 3 reaches of the Lake of Como — magnificent prospect 
— here if you find our names, pray refresh them — [he was that 
sort of traveller]. 

It was at Cannabbia (or Cadenabbia) that Wordsworth had 
fallen in with an ‘Italian Itinerant’ who was planning to hawk 
clay busts of Shakespeare and Milton round the English country- 
side, and penned the following affectionate lines: 

[57] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


What Stirring wonders wilt thou see 
In the proud Isle of Liberty/ 

Yet will the W inderer sometimes pine 
With thoughts which no delights can chase^ 

Recall a Sister’s last embrace^ 

His mother s neck-entwine; 

Nor shall forget the Maiden coy 

That would have loved the bright-haired boy. 

And therefore wished him ‘safe return. To Como’s steeps — his 
happy bourne!, In garden glade to prop the twig, That ill sup- 
ports the luscious fig.’ I have seen the branches of apricot, 
apple, and plum propped to support the weight of fruit; but 
never the twigs of figs. ‘Twig*, however, undoubtedly rhymes 
with ‘fig*. 

Here you must determine whether you will go to Como and 
Milan — and so by Varesa, Bavann, the Borromean Islands, and 
over the Simplon back into Switzerland — or, if time allows on 
by the Lesca branch to Bergamo a fine situation — Town and 
Lake of Issea. 

His first memories of the Simplon I found in The Prelude^ 
Book VI (1850 text): there he was trying to show that poetry can 
be distilled from the most literally pedestrian experiences, if one 
clomb rather than climbed'. 


we clomb 


Along the Simplon’s steep and rugged road . , . 

The only track now visible was one 

That from the torrent’s further brink held forth 

Conspicuous invitation to ascend 

A lofty mountain. After brief delay 

Crossing the unbridged stream,, that road we took 

And clomb with eagerness,, till anxious fears 

Intruded, for we failed to overtake 

Our comrades gone before. By fortunate chance. 

While every moment added doubt to doubt, 

A peasant met us, from whose mouth we learned 
That to the spot which had perplexed us first 
We must descend, and there should find the road 
Which in the stony channel of the stream 
Lay a few steps, and then along its hanks, , , . 

[58] 


THE ROAD TO RYDAL MOUNT 


Wordsworth was thoroughly scared and it looks as if the mistake 
was his, not Robert Jones’s. 


... to Louvera at its head and by Brescia, where are Roman 
Antiquities, to the Lago di Garda, up to Riva at its head where 
is magnificent scenery. Hence you might cross over into the 
Tyrol, but all this would carry you a long way from Switzerland. 
— So I will suppose you to go by the Lake from Cadenabbia to 
Como — there, if time allows, to Milan for the sake of the 
Cathedral. 

At Milan, in 1820, he had faithfully recorded an Eclipse of the 
Sun, in a tribute to Science beginning: 


High in her speculative tower 
Stood Science waiting for the hour 
When Sol was destined to endure 
That darkening of his radiant face 
Which Superstition strove to chase 
Erstwhile with rites impure. 


He was being broad-minded. Science, despite Erasmus Darwin, 
was as yet hardly respectable in English poetry, and this is one 
m the earliest friendly advances made her by a recognized 


. . . from Milan to Varesa to the Borromean Islands and over the 
^ienplin But I regret much that we did not turn aside for Banen 
so to take in tl^ Lago di Orta in our way to Domo d’Ossolo — 
near Domo d Ossolo, (as also near Varesi, I believe) is one of 

u"" u as they 

u was altogether striking. 

nltU downwards, we turned up to the 

after we had looked down into the vale which leads to Thun’ 
to Leuk — thence by Sion to Martigny. ’ 

the echoing from 

esoS?oTici: him that 

resorted to a Keatsian use of Classical mythology: 

[59] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 

As multitudinous a harmony 
Of sounds as rang the heights of Latmos over 
W^hen from the soft couch of her sleeping lover 
Upstarting^ Cynthia skimmed the mountain-dew , . , 

Wordsworth was one of the very first Englishmen to explore the 
Alps, and did so mainly, I think, because of his admiration 
for Jean Jacques Rousseau, whom George Sand called ‘the 
Christopher Columbus of Alpine poetry^ and whom Chateau- 
briand called ‘the Father of French Romanticism*. When 
Wordsworth's revolutionary enthusiasm cooled and he reverted 
to eighteenth-century normal verse-technique, he continued to 
admire Swiss scenery and was proud of his pioneering fame: had 
he not ‘discovered* the valley of Chamonix and the Mer de Glace 
for future generations of British tourists.^ 

He continues; 

From this place you might re-cross into Italy by the Grand St 
Bernard and here you need directions which I cannot give for 
coming back from behind Mt Blanc, somewhere into Savoy 
or Switzerland. t went from Martigny over the Col d’Balin 
into Chamony from which you explore the Mer d’Glace and as 
much of Mont Blanc as time and strength will allow. 

In 1790 he had been disappointed in Mont Blanc (which is, 
indeed, a smug wedding-cake of a mountain) and: 

. . . grieved 

To have a soulless image on the eye 
That had usurped upon a living thought 
That never more could be , 

but consoled himself with the reflection that: 

, . . with such a book 
Before our eyes, we could not choose but read 
Lessons of genuine brotherhood, the plain 
And universal reason of mankind. 

The truths of young and old. 

‘Nobody must mistake me for a North Welsh peasant,' he is 
saying. 


[<So] 


THE ROAD TO RYDAL MOUNT 

Thence down the vallies to Geneva, on Geneva are steam boats 
(as are also upon the Lago d’Gardo — and a public boat from 
Iseo to Riva) — and now supposing you to bear the General 
direction in mind I have done and will only observe that of the 
minor Passes, by which I mean from one part of Switzerland to 
another, that of the Gemmi and above all that from Meyn- 
ringham to Sarnan — 

Here he crossed out the words ‘and above all’, and also the 
phrase: ‘the one for grandeur and the other for beauty’, which 
followed. 

— are far the most interesting — see them all if possible. 

I could find no reference in the Poems to these particular 
steam boats, though he probably immortalized them somewhere. 
He had, as a matter of fact, written a piece about ‘ a steam boat 
seen off St Bees Head’ in 1833, and though ‘depressed’, as he 
admits, by its steady progress ‘indifferent to breeze or gale’, he 
made amends for this emotional lapse in his sonnet Steamboats^ 
Viaducts and Railways^ written the same year: ^ 


Motions and Means^ on land and sea at war 
With old poetic feelings not for this^ 

Shall ye^ by Poets even, be judged amiss! 

Nor shall your presence^ howsoever it mar 
The loveliness of Nature ^ prove a bar 
T 0 the Mind's gaining that prophetic sense 
Of future change, that point of vision, whence 
May be discovered what in soul ye are. 

In spite of all that beauty may disown 
In your harsh features , Nature doth embrace 
Her lawful offspring in Man's art; and Time, 
Pleased with your Triumphs o'er his brother Space, 
j^cepts from your bold hands the proffered crown 
Of hope, and smiles on you with cheer sublime. 


This was quoted with telling effect in Court (1950) by mv 
brother-in-law E. J. Neep. Q.C, when Wordsworth Iwers 
brought an injunction against the Electricity Board for threaten 

colkpsed at°oncel'"‘""‘^ ^ 




THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 

Wordsworth had persuaded himself that no subjects were so 
novel, so mean, or so prosaic but that a lofty style could extract 
poetry from them. To seal his Tory convictions, he wrote a 
spirited protest against the Secret Ballot, beginning; 

Forth rushed from Envy sprung and self-conceit 
A power misnamed the Spirit of Reform 
. . . now stoops she to entreat 
Licence to hide at intervals her head 
Where she may worky safe^ undisquieted 
In a ctose box/ 

He even deigned to apostrophize a spade. He had been lending 
a hand in a neighbour's potato patch; but though he called a 
spade a spade he could not bring himself to call a labourer a 
labourer, or a potato patch a potato patch. The title is: To the 
Spade of a Friend (an agriculturist). Composed while we were 
labouring together in his Pleasure Ground. 

Well, the Wordsworths felt greatly relieved to get home 
safely from their Swiss tour (as who does not.^); yet it is one 
thing to be able to feel and another to be able to express in 
graceful verse the sentiments that are common to all returned 
travellers. Wordsworth, whom my father had once described 
to me as a ‘shrewd philosopher of the natural emotions', managed 
this very creditably in two Thomas Mooreish stanzas, designed 
for singing to a tall, gilt drawing-room harp: 

Though the toil of the way with dear Friends we divide^ 
Though by the same ^ephyr our temples be fanned 
As we rest in the cool orange-bower side by side^ 

A yearning survives which few hearts shall withstand: 

Each step hath its value while homeward we move ; — 

O joy when the girdle of England appears! 

What moment in life is so conscious of love^ 

Of love in the heart made more happy by tears! 

The letter ended: 

. . . One word more by way of correction — [in 1837] Mr 
[Crabbe] Robinson and I were encumbered with a carriage, so 
that we were obliged to go back from Louvera to the Town of 

[62] 


THE ROAD TO RYDAL MOUNT 


Isean whereas pedestrians no doubt might cross from Louvera 

to Resa — and so save space and time. With the best of good 
wishes 

I remain faithfully yours 

w.w. 

Rydal Mt. 

N.B. Every foot of ground spoken of that I have seen myself 
is interesting. 

Wordsworth never visited Clare at Northampton, of course; 
but throngs of Wordsworthians visited Rydal Mount to be enter- 
tained by his sportive sister Dorothy— until she went feeble- 
minded about 1833 — 3nd to be able to say that they had seen the 
great man. My father was only ten years old when Wordsworth 
died, but his Uncle Robert took him to the auction of surplus 

Wordsworthiana at Rydal Mount, an experience which set him 
up for the rest of his life. 

^ The moral of all this is, perhaps, that poets should not be 
encumbered with a carriage’, especially if they owe this luxury 
to a political patron. And I haven’t the heart to take you on a 
conducted tour into the Age of Tennyson, which ended (as they 
say m Spam) only yesterday morning. Tennyson’s career re- 
sembled Wordsworth’s: the early escapade in 1830, when he 
hyed and loved in the Pyrenees as a Spanish revolutionary under 
lornjos; the romantic poems— of Skalott, Loros Eaters, 
Manana, (Jenone, and so on; the parsimonious and retired life- 
rescue from indigence and melancholy by Sir Robert Peel’s 
bounty; the Laureateship; a tour in Switzerland; the rise to fame 
and respectability; the suitably unromantic marriage; the urce 
to write major works; self-dedication and post-graduate self- 
improvenient as the mouthpiece of his fellow-citizens; poems 

But Muse 1 Wordsworth had disowned and betrayed his 
Muse. Tennyson never had one, except Arthur Hallam^ and a 
Muse does not w«r whiskers. The Lady of Shalott floating 

^d~a ° diT grange-* he cometh not^he 

PrL. t, Tennyson s pathetic self-inversions. And the 
is good-humoured, patronizing admission that woman 

IS capable of a certain intellectual and artistic advanlement 

[63] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


on male lines — a view as repellent in its way as Dr Johnson’s 
downright view of her general inferiority to man. W. H. Auden 
recently tried to rehabilitate Tennyson in a modern edition; 
I cannot say why. 

Edmund Gosse wrote: 

Between the years 1866—1870 the heightened reputation of 
Browning and still more die sudden vogue of Swinburne, Morris 
and Rossetti considerably disturbed the minds of Tennyson’s 
most ardent readers. He went on quite calmly, however, sure 
of his mission and his music. In 1889 the death of Browning 
left him a solitary figure indeed in poetic literature. He soon 
wonderfully recovered the high spirits of youth, and even a 
remarkable portion of physical strength. 

Gosse notes: 

No living poet has ever held England quite so long under his 
unbroken sway as Tennyson. 

This may be true, because Pope died fairly young, and until his 
declining years Wordsworth had rivals in Byron, Moore, Rogers, 
Southey, and Mrs Hemans. But for a living poet to hold England 
under his sway, even for a brief period, runs counter to English 
poetical morality. Pope had won his supremacy by blackmail; 
Wordsworth had won his by climbing on the band-wagon at 
exactly the right moment and sitting tight; Tennyson won his 
by industry, sweet persuasiveness, and much the same gearing 
of his poetic intelligence to national progress, or aspirations of 
progress, as are nowadays so roundly condemned in poets and 
artists of the Communist bloc. Pope had suffered agonies of 
spleen (according to Dr Johnson) when he read Cibber’s vigorous 
reply to his DunciadWhels; Wordsworth’s surly defiance of Jeffrey 
and other adverse critics who ridiculed what he thought his best 
work ‘did not’ (the text-books say) ‘prevent a premature depres- 
sion and a consequent deadening of his powers.’ Tennyson s 
breakfast (according to my father, who knew him personally and 
persuaded him to versify The Voyage of Maeldune) was ruined 
if the Aldworth postman did not bring him at least two or three 
fan-letters from impressionable young ladies. Tennyson con- 
tinued to wear his black cape, but in the same style as those that 
he and Hallam had worn during the Torrijos campaign, and in 
the high spirits of his renewed youth devoted his leisure to a 



THE ROAD TO RYDAL MOUNT 

different sort of literary composition. It is on record that his 

family physician, an ardent Tennysonian, coming to call on the 

great man one mellow rose-scented August afternoon, found 

him drowsing, pencil in hand, on his chair under the great cedar. 

A paper of verses fluttered to the ground and the physician stole 

forward reverently and picked it up, anxious to be the first to eye 
those immortal lines. 

It was a limerick, beginning: ‘There once was a Chinaman, 
drunk. . . 


I should not refrain from discussing the sad case of Blake, who 
avoided the pauper asylum by being so skilful a painter and 
engraver that at the worst he could always become a print- 
seller s hack. Blake began as a poet; later he lost heart and 
turned prophet. As Laura Riding has written: ‘To each is given 
what defeat he will.’ The prophetic robe with its woof of meek- 
ness and its warp of wrath was forced on him by loneliness and 
his modest station m life: to be a mechanic was even more of a 
handicap for a late eighteenth-century poet than to be a peasant, 
bmce he had no friends with whom he could converse on equal 
terms, he went in search of disciples. And though it has hitherto 
been thought that Blake’s prophetic books are original and 
unprecedented (if only because he claimed angelic inspiration 
for them as Milton had done for his Paradise Lose), h now 
apears that the angels tricked him. Instead of a live coal from 

a digest of the numerous odd religious and 

thfcnl A ^ V magnificence of his language and 

fi^nd apologize if we 

find the Prophecies dated, tedious, and perverse. 

for he'neSit of " gigantic compensation 

tAr M ® 5 shorter, truer poems. His eztXy Island in 

the Moo«— 1784, when he was twenty-seven years old— a satire 

worth^ ‘Imwn is 

worth a thousand prophetic books. It contains songs such as: 

■LtOj the Bat on leathern wing^ 

Winking and blinking^ 

Winking and blinking^ 

Winking and blinking^ 

Like Dr Johnson, 

[65] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 



and: 


and: 


When Old Corruption first began^ 
Adorned in yellow vest^ 

He committed on flesh a whoredom — 
O what a wicked beast/ 


I say, you Joe, 

Throw us the ball! 

We've a good mind to go 
And leave you all. 

I never saw such a bowler 
To bowl the ball in a turd 
And to clean it with my handkercher 
Without saying a word. 


and: 


Little Phoebus came strutting in 
With his fiat belly and his round chin. 


When the tongues ofi children are heard on the green 
And laughing is heard on the hill. 

My heart is at rest within my breast 
And everything else is still. 

Most of this playfulness and true inspiration had deserted him by 
1804. Blake then wrote in his introduction to Jerusalem'. 

After my three years slumber on the banks of the ocean, I 
again display my Giant Forms to the Public. ... I hope the 
Reader will be with me, wholly One in Jesus our Lord, who is 
the God ofi Fire and Lord ofi Love to whom the Ancients look'd 
and saw his day afar off, with trembling & amazement, . . - 
When this Verse was first dictated to me, I consider'd a Mono- 
tonous Cadence, like that used by Milton & Shakespeare & all 
writers of English Blank Verse, delivered from the modern 
bondage of Rhyming, to be a necessary and indispensable part 
of Verse. But I soon found that in the mouth of a true Orator 

[ 66 ] 



THE ROAD TO RYDAL MOUNT 


such monotony was not only awkward, but as much a bondage 
as rhyme itself. I therefore have produc’d a variety in every 
line, both of cadences & number of syllables. Every word and 
every letter is studied and put into its fit place; die terrific num- 
bers are reserved for the terrific parts, the mild & gentle for the 
mild & gentle parts, and the prosaic for inferior parts; all are 
necessary to each other. Poetry Fetter’d Fetters the Human 
Race. Nations are Destroy’d or Flourish in proportion as 
1 heir Poetry Painting and Music are Destroy’d or Flourish ! 
1 he Primeval State of Man was Wisdom, Art and Science 


The last sentence is anthropologically indefensible; and the 
criticism of Shakespeare’s blank verse is wilfully obtuse; and 

S K ^ f the poet. An orator might 

! fettered if forced to dress his legal arguments in metre 
and rhyme; but fetter’ implies slavery. Shakespeare, like every 
true poet, accepted the Muse’s yoke in the spirit of Ecclesiasticus: 


An ornament of gold is her yoke, 

And her traces a ribband of purple silk. 


It is not as though anyone had 
rhymes by his Tyger, Tyger, 


ever been fettered by Blake’s own 
Burning Bright, or by his: 


/ wonder whether the girls are mad 

And I wonder whether they mean to kill? 
And / wonder if William Bond will die? 
For assuredly he is very ill. 


No: poetry and prophecy make ill-assorted bedfellows- proohecv 
especially the evangelical sort, will claim sheet blankets aid 
both pillows in God’s name, and let poetry die of ensure 

t-emale Will which seduced Adam, caused the Troian W;,r 

" d f 


THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


whatever he said and decided. His account of the Giant Albion's 
fall and surrender to Vala — another name for Rahab — parallels 
Milton's account of Adam’s fall and surrender to Eve, and of 
Samson s to Delilah. In Milton^ Blake has bloated a local and 
personal quarrel into monstrous epic proportions. A drunken 
private soldier named Schofield had accidentally broken into his 
garden at Felpham; Blake had ejected him; and Schofield, who 
then charged him with the capital crime of High Treason, 
appeared to Blake’s disordered imagination as a villain in the 
pay of William Hayley, the poet. 

Hayley was Blake’s patron, a rich and amiable dilettante who 
had been trying to help him by directing his genius into socially 
acceptable channels, securing him commissions for painting 
miniatures and hand-screens. Blake had at first found Hayley’s 
friendship providential, but soon saw his personal integrity 
threatened by Hayley’s well-meaning approach to Mrs Blake, 
who was ill: Hayley had convinced her that Blake ought to post- 
pone his great projected Epic (which would not serve any prac- 
tical purpose, either religious or poetic), and execute these 
valuable commissions as a means of earning his bread and butter, 
Blake now came to the crazy conclusion that Hayley (though 
Hayley’s evidence at the treason trial was instrumental in securing 
his acquittal) had not only ‘acted on my wife’, but ‘hired a 
villain ’ — Schofield — ‘ to bereave my life *. ‘ Skofeld ’ duly appears 
among the ‘Gigantic Forms’ of Blake’s Milton beside Satan 
(who is Hayley), Palamabron (who is Blake), Elynittria, described 
as ‘Palamabron’s Emanation’ (who is Mrs Blake), and various 
unidentifiable friends or relatives of Hayley’s. Blake wrote: 
‘The manner in which I have routed out the nest of villains will 
be seen in a Poem concerning my Three years* Herculean Labours 
at Felpham, which I will soon Publish.* He continued to regard 
Hayley as a member of an organized conspiracy to swindle him, 
to spread the rumour of his insanity — unfortunately Hayley had 
also been patron to Cowper, who was later certified as insane 
and to exclude his pictures from the Royal Academy. 

It is dangerous to fight the Muse. Milton’s end should have 
been a warning to Blake. Richardson had written of Milton s 
last years; 

Besides what affliction he must have had from his disappoint- 
ment on the change of times and from his own private losses, 

[ 68 ] 



THE ROAD TO RYDAL MOUNT 

he was in perpetual terror of being assassinated. Though he had 

escaped the talons of the Law, he knew he had made himself 

enemies in abundance. He was so dejected he would lie awake 

whole nights . . . and was tormented with headaches, gout 
blindness. ’ 

These horrors Blake escaped, perhaps because he had a sweeter 

nature and no frauds or cruelties on his conscience. But despite 

the nobility of the engravings, which excuse their re-publication 

his prophetic books lie under the Muse’s curse of permanent 
unreadability. 


LECTURE 4 
HARP, ANVIL, OAR 


L ast week I spoke about Marvan, the seventh-century poet 
of Connaught who revealed to the professors of the Great 
Bardic Academy how the poet’s harp originated: namely 
when the wind played on the dried tendons of a stranded whale’s 
skeleton in the time of Macuel son of Miduel. And how metre 
originated: namely in the alternate beat of two hammers on the 
anvil, while Lamiach was still alive. The three hundred professors 
could not follow Marvan here, having long ceased to think 
poetically. As historic or scientific statements his revelations 
are, of course, challengeable: not a grain of evidence can be cited 
for the existence of the whale, or even for that of Macuel son of 
Miduel. Nevertheless, as poetic statements they are exact. 
What is the whale.^ An emblem of the White Love-goddess 
Rahab, Ruler of the Sea, who used yearly to destroy her sacred 
kings in numerous cities from Connaught to the Persian Gulf; 
until at last the god Enlil, or Marduk (or Jehovah, according to 
the prophet Isaiah) killed her with the new-fangled weapon 
called a sword — the Babylonians claimed in a hymn that he 
sliced her like a flatfish. But the King of Babylon still had to do 
ritual battle with her every year, be swallowed, and spewed up 
again on the third day, as Jonah was. And though Jehovah s 
prophets chanted: ‘O ye whales, bless ye Adonai, praise Him 
and magnify Him for ever ! ’ they knew that Leviathan was 
unregenerate, uncontrollable and not to be fished up with any 
hook let down. Hence the author of the Apocalypse prophesied 
that one day ‘there shall be no more sea’; by this he meant ‘no 

more Rahab, and no more whales’. 

The emblems of the Muse Trinity are a white dove in the sky, 
a white hind in the forest, a whale taking his pastime in the depth 
of the sea. Where, then, could one find a better figure of death 

[70] 



HARP, ANVIL, OAR 

than the white skeleton of a stranded whale? And wind, North 
Wind, the wind that (proverbially) pigs alone can see, the wind 
that, as I told you, Marvan carried in his mantle, the wind that 
fertilized the windswift sacred mares of Trojan Erichthonius 
and the prophetic vultures of Roman augury— wind (spiritus, 
pneuma) is the emblem of inspiradon. The bones of Rahab the 
Whale may lie stranded on the shore; but, for a poet, there is 
more truth in her dead sinews than in Marduk’s living mouth 
When Macuel son of Miduel heard the wind howling tunefully 
m the ^olian harp of the whale’s skeleton, he bethought himself 
and built a smaller, more manageable one from the same materials. 
And when he struck his harp and cried: ‘Sing to me. Muse!’ 
this was no formal invitation — Rahab herself sang at his plea 
A close parallel by the bye, may be found in English popular 
poetry. The ballad of the Twa Sisters of Binnorie tells of a 
drowned woman whose hair was used for harp-strings: 

And by there came a harper fine 

Edinbro’, Edinbro’ 

Such as harp to nobles when they dine. 

Stirling for aye 

He s taen twa strands of her yellow hair 

And with it strung a harp sae rare 

Bonnie St Johnstone stands on Tay. 

Hes done him into her father's hall^ 

Edinbro’j Edinbro’ 

And played the harp before them all, 

Stirling for aye 

And syne the harp spake loud and clear 

"Farewell my father and mither dear.' 

Bonnie St Johnstone stands on Tay. 

And syne the harp began to sing 

Edinbro’, Edinbro’ 

And it’s ‘ Farewell sweetheart; sang the string 

Stirling for aye 

A^ then., as plain as plain could be. 

There sits my sister who drowned me.’ 

^ Bonnie St^Johnstone stands on Tay. 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


The harp is the prophetic voice of the yellow-haired goddess — 
the Muse-goddess was always yellow-haired — and she sings of 
love, and grief, and doom. Marvan, moreover, was careful to 
distinguish the fitful inspirational music of the ^olian harp from 
the purposeful rhythmic clatter of the smith’s anvil. 

I am aware that I should here be discussing the English, not 
the Irish, literary scene. But Irish poetry is to English poetry, 
as — may I say? — the Pharisaic synagogue is to the Christian 
Church: an antecedent which historians are tempted to forget 
or belittle. The English have long despised the Irish; and 
though generously ready to acknowledge their debt to Anglo- 
Saxon, French, Italian, Latin and Greek literatures, are loth to 
admit that the strongest element in English poetic technique 
(though certainly acquired at second or third hand) is the Irish 
tradition of craftsmanship. 

When two hammers answer each other five times on the anvil 
— ti~tum^ ti-tum^ ti-tum — five in honour of the 

five stations of the Celtic year, there you have Chaucer’s familiar 
hendecasyllabic line: 

j 4 knight ther waSj and that a worthy man 
That fro the tyrne that he first began 
To ryden outy he lovid chivalrye, . . . 

But Anglo-Saxon poetry had been based on the slow pull and 
push of the oar: 

Then I of myself / will make this known 
That awhile I was held j the Heodenings' scopy 
To my duke most dear / and Dior was my name. 

The function of the Nordic scop seems to have been twofold. 
Not only was he originally a ‘shaper’ of charms, to protect the 
person of the king and so maintain prosperity in the realm; but 
he had a subsidiary task, of persuading a ship’s crew to pull 
rhythmically and uncomplainingly on their oars against the 
rough waves of the North Sea, by singing them ballads in time 
to the beat. When they returned from a successful foray, and 
dumped their spoil of gold collars, shields, casques, and monastic 
chalices on the rush-strewn floor of the beer-hall, then the scop 

bA 


HARP, ANVIL, OAR 

resumed his song. The drunken earls and churls straddled the 
benches, and rocked to the tune; ‘Over the whalers way, fared 
we unfearful. . . .* 

Anglo-Saxon poetry is unrhymed, because the noise of row- 
locks does not suggest rhyme. Rhyme reached England from 
France. It had been brought there by Irish missionaries who 
recivilized Western Europe after the Frankish invasions. These 
missionaries wrote and talked Latin, and The Rhythm of St 
Bernard of Cluny, the first rhymed poem of high literary preten- 
sions written by an Englishman (during the reign of Henry I 
or II) follows the pure Irish tradition. Its complicated series of 
internal and end-rhymes, and its faultless finish, leave no doubt 
about this. Here are four of the three thousand rhymed lines: 


Urbs Syon aurea^ Patria lactea^ cive decora^ 

Omne cor obruis^ omnibus obstruis et cor et ora, 

Nescio^ nescio^ quae jubilatio^ lux tibi quails^ 

Quam socialia gaudia^ gloria quam specialis, 

Prosodists have a Latin name for the metre: Leonini crutati 
tnlues dactylici. St Bernard’s Rhythm has been translated into 
Lnglish pretty well (though with a loss of all the rhyme pairs 

except the end ones, which have become monosyllables), by the 
Victorian hymn-writer, J. M. Neale; 


Jerusalem the Golden^ 

With Milk and Honey Blest^ 

Beneath Thy Contemplation 
Sink heart and voice oppressed: 

I know noty O I know not^ 

What social joys are there; 

What radiancy of Glory ^ 

What Light beyond Compare! 

^ saying, is linked to the pull of 
t e oar. Greek verse-craft is linked to the ecstatic beat of feet 

around a rough stone altar, sacred to Dionysus (or Hermes or 

dr?m Cromdes), probably to the sound of the dactylic 

drum played by a priestess or a priest: ^ 

— uu/_uu/ — //uu/ — uu/ — uu/ 

[ 73 ] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


The Greeks also admitted the iambic, traditionally named in 
honour of lasciviously hobbling lambe, who (you may remem- 
ber) tried to coax a smile from the bereaved Demeter at Eleusis. 
lambic metre may have begun with Helladic totem dances which 
imitated the hobbling of partridge or quail: 

u_/u— /u// — /u — /u — /u — 

There was also the spondaic measure derived from the gloomy 
double-stamp of buskined mourners, arousing some dead hero to 
drink the libations (spondae) that they poured for him: 

/ /-//-/ /--/ 

A metrical line in Greek poetry represents the turn taken by a 
dancer around an altar or tomb, with a caesura marking the half- 
way point: the metre never varies until the dancers have dropped 
with fatigue. Similarly in Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon poems, 
the oar*s pull and push continues mercilessly until harbour is 
reached, or until the drunken diners fall off their bench to the 
floor, unable to rise again. 

The Irish concept of metre is wholly different. All poets owed 
allegiance to the Muse-goddess Brigid — who may be decently 
equated with the Helladic Moon-goddess Brizo of Delos. Brigid 
had three aspects: the Brigid of Poets, the Brigid of Smiths, and 
the Brigid of Physicians. A Brigid of Smiths may seem anoma- 
lous, because English smiths have long ranked lower in the 
social scale than poets and physicians. In England smithcraft 
ceased, with the triumph of Christianity, to be an inspired pro- 
fession; it was wrested by monks from the hands of the lame 
Smith Wayland (who served the Goddess Freya) and registered 
merely as a useful trade. Even as a trade, it is dying now: 
wedding ring, or scythe, or steel helmet is supplied by factories 
where not even a superstitious vestige of the Wayland cult has 
gone into the making. But the pagan smith, whether goldsmith, 
whitesmith, or blacksmith, approached his work with enormous 
care and magical precaution. 

The religious connexion between poetry, smithcraft, and 
medicine is a close one. Medicine presupposes a knowledge of 
times, seasons, and the sovereign properties of plants, trees, 
beasts, birds, flsh, earths, minerals. Poetry presupposes an 
inspired knowledge of man’s sensuous and spiritual nature. 

[ 74 ] 


HARP, ANVIL, OAR 

Smithcraft — for the smith was also carpenter, mason, shipwright 

and toolmaker — presupposes an inspired knowledge of how to 

transform lifeless material into active forms. No ancient smith 

would have dared to proceed without the aids of medicine and 

poetry. The charcoal used on his forge had been made, with 

spells, at a certain time of the year from timber of certain sacred 

trees, and the leather of the forge bellows, from the skin of a 

sacred animal ritually sacrificed. Before starting a task, he and 

his assistant were obliged to purify themselves with medicines 

and lustrations, and to placate the Spites which habitually crowd 

around forge and anvil. If he happened to be forging a sword, 

the water in which it was to be tempered must have magical 

properties— May dew, or spring water in which a virgin princess 

had washed her hair. The whole work was done to the accom- 
paniment of poetic spells. 

Such spells matched the rhythm of the smiths’ hammers; and 
these were of unequal weight. A sledge hammer was swung by 
the assistant; the smith himself managed the lighter hammer. To 
beat out hot metal successfully, one must work fast and follow 
a prearranged scheme. The smith with his tongs lays the glowing 
lump of iron on the anvil, then touches with his hammer the 
place where the sledge blow is to fall; next he raps on the anvil 
the number of blows required. Down comes the sledge; the 
smith raps again for another blow, or series of blows. Experience 
teaches him how many can be got in while the iron is still hot 
bo each stage of every process had its peculiar metre, to which 
descriptive words became attached; and presently the words 
ound their own tunes. This process explains Marvan’s mys- 

afions “ Lamiach who appears in the English trans- 

ations of Gemsis as Lamech’. Lamech was the father of Tubal 

the first smith, and Jubal the first musician. Nor did the smith 

fcoTof and 

tb.t" versified to the ring of hammers; and the fact 

re^lar metre had become characteristic of 

fon of .hough and Workmanship, wS 

[75] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


call for, had also been to some extent adopted. The metaphor 
of beating out one’s verses on the anvil is now, indeed, a poetical 
commonplace. But let me put it this way: though every English 
poet is a smith for the greater part of the year, he takes to the 
sea during the brief sailing season. Chaucer may seem to be a 
hammer-and-anvil poet when he writes: 

A knight ther was, and that a worthy man 
That fro the tym'd that he first began 
To ryden outy he loved chivalrye. . . . 

Ti-tumy ti-tumy ti-tumy ti-tum. Then he lays down the hammer 
and reaches for the oar. Instead of: 

Honour and freidomy truth and courtesy y 


he writes: 


Truth and honour / freidom and courtesy . . . 

and this has been the English verse-tradition ever since. 

Skelton also reconciled the anvil with the oar in a metre which 
he used in his early Lament for Edward IVy and again at the close 
of his life in Speke Parrot, Note the Anglo-Saxon alliteration: 

Miseremini mei j ye that be my frendisl 
This world hath formed me / downe to fall. 

How many I endure / when that everi thing endis? 

What creature is borne / to be eterndlP 



The myrrour that I tote in / quasi diaphanum, 

Vel quasi speculum / in aenigmate, 

Elencticum, or ells / enthymematicum, 

For logicians to loke on / somewhat sophistice: 
Retoricyons and oratours / in freshe humanytCy 
Support Parroty I pray you / with your suffrage ornatCy 
Of confuse tantum / aupydynge the chekmate, 

[76] 



HARP, ANVIL, OAR 


The history of Shakespeare’s blank verse is a progression from 
the careful anvil work of, say, The Comedy of Errors^ to The 
Tempesty where the oar is pulling in a very rough sea. The 
Comedy of Errors begins: 


egeon: Proceedy SolinuSy to procure my fall y 

And by the doom of death end woes and alL 

DUKE OF Merchant of SyracusOy plead no more, 

EPHESUS: I am not partial to infringe our laws; 

The enmity and discord which of late 
Sprung from the rancorous outrage of your Duke 
To merchants y our well-dealing countrymeny 
Who wanting guilders to redeem their lives y 
Have sealed his rigorous statutes with their bloods y 
Excludes all pity from our threatening looks, , , , 


But m The Tempest the opening exchanges between shipmaster 
and boatswain are recognized as blank verse only because every 
now and then a regular line occurs to reassert the norm. (Hem- 
ing and Condell in their edition of the First Folio print them as 
prose, and all cautious editors follow suit.) 


(The BOATSWAIN appears when the master summons him) 

THE master: Good. Speak to the mariners; fall to’t yarely. 

Or -we run ourselves aground. Bestir, bestir/ 

boatswain: Heigh my hearts, cheerily, cheerily, my hearts, 

yarey yard 

Take in the topsail/ Tend to the master s whistle! 
(to the master) 

Blow till thou burst thy windy if room enough! 


The rules of prosody apply only to anvil verse, or to sacred- 
dance verse, in which every syllable is evaluated and counted 
l^ope, for instance, says that he lisped in numbers for the numbers 
came; numbers translates the Latin numeri, which imply a 

parV> j orderly sequence of metrical feet 

each with the same determined time value, every long syllable 

[77] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 

being given the value of a crotchet, and every short syllable the 
value of a quaver; though the Elizabethan critics, headed by 
George Puttenham, had emphatically rejected this theory. The 
only fundamental difference between Pope’s notion of verse arid 
Virgil s, or Horace’s, was that the Latin convention of what 
made a syllable long or short had lapsed. Now, in Bernard of 
Cluny’s Rhythm^ for instance, the Latin rules of quantity are 
maintained: every syllable is regarded as long or short by nature, 
though a short syllable may become long by position; and a 
terminal vowel, or vowel plus will be elided and disappear. 
This, it must be realized, was a highly artificial convention: 
ordinary Latin speech, as heard in the home and Forum, seems 
from the scraps of camp songs penned by Suetonius to have been 
accentual, and the accent did not necessarily fall on the 
vowel. 

It amused educated English poets — such as Chaucer, Skelton, 
Ben Jonson, Milton, Marvell, Dr Johnson, and Coleridge — to 
compose Latin verses in Classical style; but the freedom to 
observe natural speech stresses (as opposed to the laws of quan- 
tity) not only in vernacular verse but in Latin too, if they pleased, 
had already been won for them by the hymnologists and carol- 
makers and Goliardic song-writers of the Middle Ages. The first 
two lines of the famous medieval students’ drinking song; 

Mihi est pTopositum in taberna mori; 

J^inum sit appositum potatoris orL . . . 

contain thirteen false quantities, and the first two lines of the 
equally famous hymn: 

Dies iraey dies ilia 
Solvens saecla in favilla, . . . 

contain eight. (Don’t bother to count them.) This is not due 
to ignorance. Who would dare accuse St Thomas Aquinas of 
ignorance because he rhymes natus with datus} Aquinas knew 
well enough that rhyme was a barbarism in Classical Latin 
poetry — and that Cicero had made a fool of himself with the 
internal rhyme of: 



O fortunatam natam^ me Consule^ RomamI 

[78] 



HARP, ANVIL, OAR 

But he also knew that these quantities had been justified by Irish 
metrical example; the Irish did not acknowledge quantity, they 
relied on accent. 

Skelton, in his Devout Trentale for Old John Clerk^ Sometime 
the Holy Patriarche ofDiss^ actually alternated correct hexameters 
with Goliardic verse: 


Sequitur trigintale^ 

Tale quale rationale^ 

Licet parum curiale^ 

Tamen satis est formale^ 

Joannis Clerc^ hominis 
Cujusdam multinominis ^ 

Joannes Jay herd qui vocatur^ 

Clerc cleribus nuncupatur, 

Obiit sanctus iste pater 
Anno Domini MDy sexto. 

In parochia de Dis, 

Non erat sibt similis^ 

In malitia vir insignis^ 

Duplex corde et bilinguis; 

Senio confectuSy 
Omnibus suspectus^ 

Nemini dilectus^ 

Sepultus est amonge the wedes: 
God forgeue hym his mysdedes! 

Dulce melos^ 

Penetrans coelos. 


Larmtna cum cannis cantemus festa Joannis: 

Clerk obiit vere^Jayberd nomenque dedere; 

Dis populo natuSy Clerk cleribusque vocatus. 

The Ehzabe^an critics, humanists to a man, were a little 
uneasy about this divergence from Classical metric theory, but 
there was clearly no help for it. Samuel Daniel, in his Defence 
} Khyme (1603), found it necessary to lay down: ‘As Greeke 
and Latine verse consists of the number and quantity of sillables, 

* Melos rhyming with coelos. 

[79] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


SO doth the English verse of measure and accent.’ They admitted, 
in fact, that the natural accent of current English speech decides 
whether a syllable should be long or short — even though the 
same word may change its value in the same line. Thus, for 
instance, the pentameter: 

offer her / ices^ dr j d jj lovely cdmifdrtdble / chair 

is quantitatively correct according to Ovidian rule, but does not 
scan. Moreover, the Virgilian hexameter, as Thomas Nashe 
forcefully explained in his answer to Gabriel Harvey’s recom- 
mendation of it, is not natural to English: 

The Hexamiter verse I graunt to be a Gentleman of an auncient 
house (so is many an english beggar); yet this Clyme of ours hee 
cannot thriue in. Our speech is too craggy for him to set his 
plough in; hee goes twitching and hopping in our language like 
a man running vpon quagmiers, vp the hill in one Syllable, and 
downe the dale in another, retaining no part of that stately 
smooth gate which he vaunts himselfe with amongst the Greeks 
and Latins. 

And so a strong sense has grown up among practical English poets 
that the natural rhythm of speech decides where accents fall; and 
that, therefore, the less artificial the words, the truer the poem. 

Tell a schoolchild that Keats’s Fairy Song is an iambic poem 
with three four-foot lines followed by one of five feet, another 
of four feet, one of two feet, and finally a five-footer, rhyming 
AB, AB, C, C, B — and he will read it like this: 

Ah woe / is me / poor silyfer wing 
That I / mast chant / thy ladjy's dirge 
And death / to this j fair haunt / of spring 
And melfody / and streams j of flowerfy verge* 

Poor Silvj erwing / ah woe / is me 
That I / must see 

These Blossloms snow / upon / thy ladjy^s pall. 

But if the words are spoken in the manner most natural to their 
sense and feeling, this is how Keats will have meant it to be said; 
and you realize that the laws of prosody are, to verse, very much 

[80] 



HARP, ANVIL, OAR 

as copperplate models are to handwriting. Keats had a poet's 
ear for verse; and Shakespeare had; as Donne had; as Coleridge 
had; as Skelton had. But Keats was easily seduced. When he 
put on his singing robes and played at being a Classical poet, 
he became gorbliminess incarnate. In his Ode to Apollo^ for 
example: 

Then^ through thy Temple wide^ melodious swells 
The sweet majestic tone of Maro^ s lyre: 

The soul delighted on each accent dwells ^ — 

Enraptur'd dwells^ — not daring to respire^ 

The while he tells of grief around a funeral pyre. 

' Tis awful silence then again; 

Expectant stand the spheres; 

Breathless the laurelV d peers^ 

Nor move^ till ends the lofty s train y 
Nor move till Milton s tuneful thunders cease 
And leave once more the ravish'd heaven in peace. 

Thou hiddest Shakespeare wave his handy 
And quickly forward spring 
The Passions — a terrific band — 

And each vibrates the string 
That with its tyrant temper best accordsy 
While from their Master s lips pour forth the inspiring words. 

Keats should have known that to impose an artificial word-order, 
or an artificial vocabulary, on poems is a lapse in poetic dignity. 

There is so much to say about professional standards in verse- 
technique, that I shall confine myself to generalities. For instance, 
that though the muscular str and scr words: strain y strength y stringy 
stranglcy stretchy struggUy stridenty extravaganty screWy scrapCy 
scrawnyy and such easy skipping words as melodyy merrilyy 
prettily y harmony y fantasy match sense with sound, other words 
are not so onomatopoeic. A strangely striped strip of satin is far 
too emphatic in sound for the sense, and a terribly powerful 
Fhrida hurricane is not nearly emphatic enough. Yet to alter 
the spirit of an original poetic thought for the sake of metre 
or euphony is unprofessional conduct. So the art of accommo- 
dating sense to sound without impairing the original thought 

[8i] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 

has to be learned by example and experiment. Under-emphasis 
or over-emphasis in a word can be controlled by playing other 
words off against it, and carefully choosing its position in a line, 
and making the necessary adjustments to neighbouring lines 
until the ear at last feels satisfied. It is an axiom among poets 
that if one trusts whole-heartedly to poetic magic, one will be 
sure to solve any merely verbal problem or else discover that the 
verbal problem is hiding an imprecision in poetic thought. 

I say magic, since the act of composition occurs in a sort of 
trance, distinguishable from dream only because the critical 
faculties are not dormant, but on the contrary, more acute than 
normally. Often a rugger player is congratulated on having 
played the smartest game of his life, but regrets that he cannot 
remember a single incident after the first five minutes, when he 
got kicked on the head. It is much the same with a poet when 
he completes a true poem. But often he wakes from the trance 
too soon and is tempted to solve the remaining problems intel- 
lectually. Few self-styled poets have experienced the trance; but 
all who have, know that to work out a line by an exercise of 
reason, rather than by a deep-seated belief in miracle, is highly 
unprofessional conduct. If a trance has been interrupted, it is just 
too bad. The poem should be left unfinished, in the hope that 
suddenly, out of the blue, days or months later, it may start 
stirring again at the back of the mind, when the remaining prob- 
lems will solve themselves without difficulty. 

Donne’s chief failing as a love-poet was his readiness to con- 
tinue the inspired beginning with a witty development. For 
instance: 


Goe^ and catche a falling starre. 

Get with child a mandrake roote . . . 

Here Donne paused, apparently remembered Villon’s neiges 
d'antan^ and went on: 

Tell me^ where all past yeares are . . . 

And then consciously searched for a rhyme to roote. But he had 
not the least idea where the poem was taking him, except into a 
discussion of impossibility. So he continued in quite a different 
key: 


[82] 



HARP, ANVIL, OAR 

Or who cleft the Divels foot^ 

Teach me to heare Mermaides singings 
Or to keep off envies stinging . . , 

He paused again and apparently remembered Shakespeare’s: 

Blow^ blow thou winter wind^ 

Thou art not so unkind 
As mans ingratitude . . . 

and Dante’s remarks about the bitterness of having to seek 
advancement from haughty patrons. So he ended the verse with 
the quite irrelevant: 

And finde 
What winde 

Serves to advance an honest minde. 

Again he opened magnificently: 

I wonder by my troth^ what thou^ and I 
Didy till we lov dl were we not weand till thenl 
But sucked on countrey pleasures^ childishly^ 

Here inspiration faded and he resorted to artifice: 

Or snorted we in the seaven sleepers^ den? 

T was so; But this^ all pleasures fancies bee. 

If ever any beauty I did see^ 

Which I desir d^ and got^ dwas but a dreame of thee, 

Donne is adept at keeping the ball in the air, but he deceives 

us here by changing the ball. Coleridge often does the same 

thing, for example when he fakes a sequel to the inspired opening 

passage of Christabel—hul he handles the ball so clumsily that 
we are seldom deceived. ^ 

h is unprofessional conduct to say; ‘When next I write a poem 
1 shall use the sonnet form’ — because the theme is by definition 
untorpeeable, and theme chooses metre. A poet should not be 
conscious of the metrical pattern of a poem he 

the first three or four lines have appeared; he 
himself in the eleventh line of fourteen before 

[83] 


IS writing until 
may even find 
realizing that a 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


sonnet is on the way. Besides, metre is only a frame; the atmo- 
spheres of two sonnets can be so different that they will not be 
recognized as having the same form except by a careful count 
of lines and feet. Theme chooses metre; what is more, theme 
decides what rhythmic variations should be made on metre. 
The theory that all poems must be equally rich in sound is an 
un-English one, borrowed from Virgil. Rainbow-like passages 
are delightful every now and then, but they match a rare mood 
of opulence and exaltation which soon fatigues. The riches of 
Paradise Lost fatigue, and even oppress, all but musicians. 
Rainbows should make their appearances only when the moment 
has come to disclose the riches of the heart, or soul, or imagina- 
tion; they testify to passing storms and are short-lived. 

Another professional principle is that mimesis should be 
regarded as vulgar. By mimesis I mean such tours de force as 
Virgifs: 

Quadrupedante putrem sonitu quatit ungula campum^ 
and Tennyson’s: 

The moan of doves in immemorial elms^ 

The murmur of innumerable bees. 

To these I should add the Homeric: 

Autis epeita pedonde cylindeto lads anaideSy 

the shameless stone of Sisyphus bounding downhill, if I did not 
think that this was high-spirited verbal comedy, proclaiming 
disbelief in the whole theory of divine punishment. 

Pope’s translation of the Sisyphus passage, by the way, runs: 

With many a weary sigh, and many a groan^ 

Up the high hill he heaves a huge round stone . . . 

though the corresponding lines in the Odyssey do not mimic 
Sisyphus’s breathlessness. And Pope’s concluding couplet is 
wretchedly incompetent: 

The huge round stone^ resulting with a bound 
Thunders impetuous down and smokes along the ground. 

[84] 



HARP, ANVIL, OAR 

The false internal rhymes of round and bound and the half- 
rhymes of down and ground effectively act as brakes on the stone’s 
merry progress. As Blake said in one of his Public Addresses: 
‘I do not condemn Pope or Dryden because they did not under- 
stand imagination, but because they did not understand 
verse.’ 

One of the most difficult problems is how to use natural 
speech rhythms as variations on a metrical norm. And here we 
meet with the heresy of free verse. Until the time of Blake and 
his oratorical cadences, it was generally agreed that the reader 
should never be allowed to lose his sense of metrical norm. But 
Blake, finding the contemporary technique of poetry too cramp- 
ing, burst it wide open and wrote something that was neither 
poetry nor prose. Whitman did much the same, though for 
different reasons: he epitomizes the restless American habit, 
first noted in the eighteenth century, of moving adventurously 
west across the trackless prairie, scratch-farming as one goes, 
instead of clinging to some pleasant Pennsylvanian farm, improv- 
ing crops and stock by careful husbandry, and building a home- 
stead for one’s children and grand-children. All who, like 
Whitman, choose to dispense with a rhythmical norm are wel- 
come to explore the new country which he opened up, but it 
now wears rather a dismal look. Robert Frost’s poems’ which 
combine traditional metres with intensely personal rhythms, show 

the advantage of staying put and patiently working at the 
problem.* 


* Mr. Eliot has written about free verse: 

It is not defined by non-existence of metre, since even the worst 
verse can be scanned. 

TTiis is to beg the question. In so far as verse can be scanned, it is not 
treed or metre. He has also written: 

But the most interesting verse which has yet been written in our 
language has been done [«c] either by taking a very simple form like 
the iambic pentameter, and constantly withdrawing from it or taking 
no form at all, and continually approximating to a very simple one 

It IS this contrast beween fixity and flux, this unperceived evLion of 
monotony, which is the very life of verse. 

Interesting to some, embarrassing to others, like a jaunt in a car after 

mixing a little water with the petrol to make it go by fits and starts. I was 

never interested in that sort of experiment; I expect verse to be verse and 
prose to be prose. verse, ana 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


A dogma has recently been planted in English schools that the 
King James version of the Bible is poetry. It is not. The polishing 
of the English translation was, of course, admirably done by a 
team of capable University scholars, trained in the oratorical art. 
Sometimes they even included a perfectly metrical line: 

How art thou fallen from Heaven^ O Lucifer^ son of the morning! 

And: 


Come down and sit in the dust; O virgin daughter of Babylon^ 
Sit on the ground. . . . 

But one might as well call The Times leaders poetry, because they 
are written by skilled journalists and because they contain a 
high proportion of blank-verse lines, sometimes as much as 
30 per cent. 

Ben Jonson told Drummond of Hawthornden that ‘for not 
keeping of accent’ — that is to say, allowing his readers to lose 
the sense of metrical norm — ‘Donne deserved hanging’. Jonson 
had also said that Donne was ‘the first poet in the world in some 
things’, and that he had a few of his early poems by heart. It is 
difficult to reconcile these statements. But Jonson seems to be 
referring to the Satyres^ where Donne at times deliberately 
changes the metre — as when a competitor in a walking race 
shamelessly bends his knees and breaks into a short run: 


. , . So in immaculate clothes^ and Symetrie 
Perfect as circles ^ with such nicetie 
As a young Preacher at his first time goes 
To preach., he enters, and a Lady, which owes 
Him not so much as good will, he arrests. 

And unto her protests, protests, protests; 

So much as at Rome would serve to have throwne 
Ten Cardinalls into the Inquisition; 

And whispers by Jesu, so often, that A 
Pursevant would have ravish! d him away 
For saying of our Ladies psalter. But tis fit 
That they each other plague, they merit it . . . 




HARP, ANVIL, OAR 

In the same satire, Donne also makes the units of sense play 
havoc with the units of metre: 


. . . No^ nOy Thou which since yesterday hast heene 
Almost about the whole worlds hast thou seene^ 

O Sunne^ in all thy journey ^ Vanitie^ 

Such as swells the bladder of our court^ I 
Thinke he which made your waxen garden^ and 
Transported it from Italy to stand 
With us^ at London^ flouts our Presence^ for 
Just such gay painted things^ which no sappe^ nor 
T ast have in them^ ours are; And naturall 
Some of the stocks are^ their fruits^ bastard alL 


But let me speak up for Donne. There are, of course, certain 
familiar proprieties in English poetry. Accent must be kept, 
which means, as I have shown, that however the metrical norm 
may be varied, it should stay recognizable — one must not write 
lines that go off into another metre altogether. Rhyme must be 
kept within certain decent limits, and the consonantal part of 
rhyme must be regarded as more important than the vowel. 
W A indecent to rhyme charm with calm, or {pace 

It j kore with mother-in-law; though love and prove, 

<ul and usual, fly and extremity are traditionally countenanced! 

hree-syllable rhymes are indecent, so are mixed metaphors, 
and what Corinna called ‘sowing with the sack’ — namely over- 

Again: an even level of language 
Should be kept: one must decide to what period each poem 

belongs and not relapse to an earlier, or anticipate a more modern, 

aiction. rhus it is indecent to address you and thee in the same 

verse to the same person— even if Pope and Marvell are quoted in 

justihcation. And, most important, there should be no dis- 

cr^ancy between the sound and the sense of a poem. It would be 

aimcult, for instance, to quarrel on technical grounds with a 
simple iambic stanza such as this: 

Mother is dead; my heart to pieces tom, 

I hear my kinsmen weep — 

Uncle, niece, nephew, cousin, who convey her 
Unto her last long sleep, 

[87] 


G 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 

But turn this into dactyls, and the effect is ludicrous: 

Mother is dead and my heart h in pieces^ 

Hark how the friends of the family weep I 
Cousins and uncles and nephews and nieces 
Accompany her to her last long sleep. 

These are elementary rules, a few chosen at random from what 
I may call the Common Law of English Verse. But, in English 
satire, all rules can be deliberately broken. Byron’s satiric com- 
ment on Keats’s death, for example: 

Strange that the souly that very fiery par tide y 
Should let itself be snuffed out by an article, , , , 

is emphasized by the deliberate use of the three-syllabled rhyme. 

And comically inexact rhyme is the strength of Siegfried 
Sassoon’s squib, written in the palmy days of George V, which 
he has generously allowed me to resurrect: 

Because the Duke is Duke of Yorky 

The Duke of York has shot a huge rhinoceros; 

Let s hope the Prince of Wales will take a walk 

Through AfricOy and make the Empire talk 

By shooting an enormous hippopotamus y 

And let us also hope that Lord Lascelles 

Will shoot all beasts from gryphons to gaielles 

And show the world what sterling stuff we've got in us. 

The word satire is not derived, as most people suppose, from 
the witty, prick-eared satyrs of the early Greek comedy, but 
from the Latin phrase satura lanxy or ‘full platter’. Latin satire 
was a burlesque performance at a harvest festival, in which full- 
fed countrymen would improvise obscene topical jokes to a 
recurrent dance tune — as the islanders of Majorca still do to the 
copeoy at their annual pig-killing. The harvest atmosphere was 
free and easy; anything went. Urban satire, as Horace, or 
Juvenal, or Persius wrote it, was quite a different affair: Greek 
in origin, and bound by the same rules as epic or pastoral verse. 
Samuel Butler’s Hudibras is fescennine; so are Donne’s satires. 

[ 88 ] 



HARP, ANVIL, OAR 

Donne, in fact, did not deserve hanging if he failed to keep his 
accent in the satires; he could plead privilege. 

Pope, who modelled himself as a satirist on Horace, thought 
fit to regularize Donne’s lines: 


Thou^ who since yesterday hast rolVdder all 
The busy^ idle blockheads of the ball^ 

Hast thou^ oh Sun! beheld an emptier sort^ 
Than such as swell this bladder of a courd . 


Thus finished and corrected to a hair, 

They march, to prate their hour before the fair, 

a white-gloved chaplain goes, 
With band of lily, and with cheek of rose. 
Sweeter than Sharon, in immaclate trim. 
Neatness itself impertinent with him, . . . 


The difference between these two versions is that Donne’s is 
readable, and Pope’s is not; the regularity of the metre defeats 
Its objct after the first fifty couplets. Its readers remain un- 

ZS subTaa!®'’’ “'“P- 

rhJr ’""de a discovery, which 

the Greeks and Romans had never made, and which^^elched 

‘hough a wonderful 

to memo^, is soporific unless frequent changes occur in the 
m tre; and that though, say, Virgil’s ^neU or^ HomerV /iaJ 
may contain numerous poems, the verse which links these poems 

fofce^^wfcr^'^ 'hem of their 

Lack oZ L mnl ' T ^ Perhaps a 

vellum wa’s prohibitivdyTar, rSorld thdr' chtLobgles Theff 

[89] ’ 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


even Spenser’s Faerie Queene^ is necessarily mother-of-pearl. 
Ben Jonson, hinted at this in his Discoveries, He wrote: 

Even one alone verse sometimes makes a perfect poem as 
when Aeneas hangs up and consecrates the Armes of Abas with 
this inscription: 

Aeneas haec de Danais victoribus arma . . . 
and calls it a Poeme or Carmen, 

This drawing of attention to the poems included in a long work 
written in set stanzas — as Dante enthusiasts point to The Death 
of Ugolino and similar pearls — suggests that the rest is not up to 
sample. And how can it be, if the same metre is insisted on 
throughout? 

In blank verse drama one can easily mark off the poems from 
the roughage. Not only is blank verse capable of almost infinite 
variations, but prose is allowed to supply comic relief or passages 
which further the plot. Shakespeare, for instance, makes Trinculo 
and Stephano in The Tempest speak familiar quayside prose, 
which Caliban answers in poems. But it is manifestly impossible 
that a long narrative poem which contains genealogy, description 
of scenery, battles, love-passages, laments, and so on, can be 
reduced to a single metre without dilution of the poetic content. 
Long poems are like old French or Spanish tapestries: the design 
and colour and needlework may be charming but there is no 
sharpness of detail, no personal characterization, no difference in 
quality or colour between foreground and background. 

Are there any anthropologists present? If so, they may recall 
the giant yam of Abulam. At Abulam in New Guinea, yams for 
ordinary eating are planted and tended by the women, but every 
planting season a tense competition arises among the men: who 
can grow the yam of the year. This is a purely ritualistic 
like the Harvest Festival marrow in an English village. The 
winning exhibit is said to be of approximately the size and shape 
of a bull-hippopotamus (discounting its head and legs) and per- 
fectly inedible. It provides, in fact, an emblem of the 
epic, which was still being cultivated in Victorian days, 
passing of this Epic, followed by the formal Elegy, and the e 
addressed to heedless nightingales, rocking-chairs, abstractions, 
and noblemen, of what does poetry now consist? It is reduced, 

[90] 



HARP, ANVIL, OAR 

at last, to practical poems, namely the lyrical or dramatic high- 
lights of the poet*s experiences with the Goddess in her various 
disguises. The prose setting is withheld; and, because of this, 
professional standards demand that it should either explain itself 
fully, or present a note, as schoolchildren do who arrive late or 
without some necessary part of their school equipment. 

Before closing, I must tell you about a girl who is reading 
English here under Professor X. I asked her: ‘What poems do 
you enjoy most.^’ and she answered with dignity: ‘Poems are 
not meant to be enjoyed; they are meant to be analysed.’ I hope 
you do not think that I subscribe to this heresy. 



LECTURE V 


DAME OCUPACYON 

I N my last lecture I raised the problem of the poet’s public, 
meaning: How large or small can this be in his lifetime? As 
large, I should say, as the widest possible extension of his 
circle of potential friends, or as small as the narrowest number of 
these potential friends to become aware of his work. Friends: 
not neighbours, not relatives, not business acquaintances: friends. 
People with roughly the same background of birth, environment, 
education, emotional propensities and intellectual prejudices. 
Friends, because, though they need not know the poet person- 
ally, they should feel at their ease with the poem. A poet may 
use any means that offer to make his work available to them. 
But if he tries to win a larger public by writing down to it, he is 
guilty of professional misconduct. I will go further; he should 
not consider his public at all, until the poem is written. 

The medical profession supplies an analogy to this paradox. 
A true physician, obsessed with his work, will not regard him- 
self as morally bound to any particular practice or hospital; he 
will readily move to another practice, or another hospital, which 
offers him more favourable working conditions, even if the pay 
is smaller. His chief interest lies in the diagnosis and cure (or 
palliation) of disease; and his chief loyalty is to the Goddess 
Hygieia, not to a particular group of sick people who need 
medical attention. The poet’s chief interest lies, similarly, in the 
conception and working out of poems, and his chief loyalty is 
to the Goddess Calliope, not to his publisher, or to the booksellers 
on his publisher’s mailing list. What the subsequent fate may be 
of the poems he writes should never influence their conception; 
as the act of love should be uncomplicated by thoughts of rich 
godparents for the child to be, perhaps, conceived. Also, the 
poet’s approach to the Goddess is a personal one: he comes as 



DAME OCUPACYON 


himself, not in fancy-dress or borrowed clothing; and does not 
rant at her as though she were a public meeting, but speaks gently, 

clearly, intimately— they are closeted alone together By the 

way, I heard an answer today to the platitude: ‘There’s no 
money in poetry. It was: There’s no poetry in money, either.’ 

Epitaphs and elegies are a good test of poetic seriousness; 
because they may tempt the poet to hollow rhetoric. I have 
already quoted Skelton’s Epitaph on Edward IV, and Clare’s 
The Dying Child and, by contrast, Dryden’s fancy-dress Epitaph 
on Lord Hastings. Here are two more poems of the same solemn 
category from opposite ends of the social scale. What makes 
Surreys Epitaph on Clere of Cleremont a good poem is that he 
remains uncompromisingly himself, with all the faults and virtues 
of his nobility, and that he feels a sincere grief: 


Norfolk sprang thee, Lambeth holds thee deads 
Clere, of the County of Cleremont, thou hight, 

W ithin the womb of Ormond's race thou bred. 

And saw'st thy cousin crownid in thy sight. . . . 
Shelton for love, Surrey for Lord, thou chase; 
i^Aye me/ while life did last that league was tender'^ 
Tracing whose steps thou sawest Kelsall bla^e. 
Launder sey burnt, and battered Bullen render I 
At Mottrel gates, hopeless of all recure, 

half dead, gave in thy hand his will; 
Which cause did thee this pining death procure. 

Ere summers four times seven thou couldst fulfill. 
Ah! Clere! if love had booted, care, or cost. 
Heaven had not won, nor earth so timely lost. 


Before Larry Was Stretched, a late 

wnter whoever he may have been (and one Harefoot Bill is 
^ remains uncompromisingly him- 

SnSre griet" 


The night before Larry was stretched. 
The boys th^ all paid him a visits 
A bit in their sacks too they fetched. 

They sweated their duds till th^ ri^ itj 

[93] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


For Larry was always the lad^ 

When a friend was condemned to the squee:^er^ 

W ould fence all the togs that he had 
Just to help the poor boy to a sneeier^ 

And moisten his gob fore he died. , . . 

The boys they came crowding in fast; 

They drew their stools close round about him^ 

Six glims round his trap-case they placed; 

He couldn t be well waked without 'em. 

When one of us ashed, could he die 
Without having truly repented? 

Says Larry, ‘ That's all in my eye. 

And first by the clergy invented 
To get a fat bit for themselves.' 

. . . Then the deck being called for, they played 
Till Larry found one of them cheated. 

A dart at his napper he made. 

The lad being easily heated. 

^ So ye chates me because I'm in grief; 

O, is that, by the Holy, the rason? 

Soon I'll give you to know, you black thief 
That you re cracking your jokes out of sason. 

I'll scuttle your nob with my fist.' 

. . . When he came to the nubbling chit. 

He was tucked up so neat and so pretty; 

The rumbler jogged off from his feet. 

And he died with his face to the city. 

He kicked, too, but that wcls all pride. 

For soon you might see 'twos all over; 

And after the noose was untied. 

Then at darky we waked him in clover. 

And sent him to take a ground sweat. 

What (by your leave) makes Lycidas a bad poem, when judged 
by the same standards, is that Milton has put on Theocritan 
fancy-dress; and, as Dr Johnson first pointed out, it must not 
be considered the effusion of real passion*. 

[94] 



DAME OCUPACYON 


Dr Johnson observes: 


Among the flocks, and copses, and flowers, appear the Heathen 
deities; Jove and Phoebus, Neptune and Aeolus, with a long train 
of mythological imagery, such as a college easily supplies. 
Nothing can less display knowledge, or less exercise invention, 
tlian to tell how a shepherd has lost his companion, and must 
now feed his flocks a one, without any judge of his skill in 
piping; and how one god asks another god what is become of 
Lycidas, and how neither god can tell. He who thus grieves will 
excite no sympathy; he who thus praises will confer no honour. 

He might have added that Milton’s chief interest while writing 

Lycidas was an experiment in adapting Welsh verse-theory to 
English. 

About obscurity. Obscurity is often charged against a poem 
by readers for whom it was not intended, because they are outside 
the poet’s natural circle of friends. They feel aggrieved at having 
wasted their money or time. This is foolish. Since I am neither 
scientist nor philosopher, I should not venture to call any 
scientific or philosophical treatise obscure. If for some reason or 
other I find myself bogged down in a technical passage which 
someone has pressed into my hands, I assume that the terms are 
beyond me, and make no complaints; unless the fault lies clearly 
in the careless or illogical use of English prose, which has certain 
agreed semantic principles. 

Unhistorically-minded readers, not at home in a mid-sixteenth- 
century English castle, or a late-eighteemh-century Dublin 
thieves kitchen, may find The Epitaph on Clere or The Night 
Before Larry W is Stretched obscure; Calliope, to whom they are 
directly addressed, does not. She is no snob about class, or 
dialect, or a poet’s occupational obsessions. True poems have 
been wntten by oyster-dredgers and gangsters and cricketers, 
out when casually off-target lines are addressed to her (as the 

an invitation to get a general atmo- 
sphenc sense of what the poet means instead of reading them 
attentively, she feels insulted. This Impressionistic technique 
hke most other modernisms in poetry, has been borrowed from’ 
french painting theory. Another kind of Impressionism presents 
her with a series of stark images— as it might be natural objects 
tnat stnke the week-ender’s attention on a country walk— but 

[95] 


THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 

leaves her to inter-relate them. And then there is the Express- 
ionist technique, which relies on the perverse associations that 
some words have for a particular poet; he does not trouble to 
consider whether Calliope will find them acceptable. And by the 
way, this is the first time in history that poets have been depen- 
dent on painters for their inspiration; it used to be the other wav 
about. 

Expressionism raises a professional problem; what references 
are legitimate in a poem? A poet may, of course, thrust a poem 
in the hands of his personal muse, with: ‘Dear love, this is for 
your eyes only’, and then intimate and far-fetched jokes shared 
between them are in order. And I must admit that old acquain- 
tance is not always necessary for the understanding of obscure 
references. One may achieve a surprising rapport with a stranger, 
whose imaginative processes are similar to one’s own — for 
example while playing ‘The Game’ — I mean the Hollywood 
charade game, to which I am partial. The player has to convey 
a song title, or a book title, or a newspaper headline, or whatever 
it may be, to members of his team by a rapid use of dumbshow, 
and is timed for speed. Try it, and you may find that one of your 
team, of the opposite sex, will divine instantly, against all the 
accepted rules of semantics, what you are acting for them. For 
instance, you catch her eye, and paying no attention to the other 
members of your side, you adopt the stance of a banderillero^ 
then pinch your nose, claw the air with purposeful stripes and 
wave your hand enthusiastically above your head. You have 
been asked to convey the song-title: ‘Three cheers for the Red, 
White, and Blue’ — and she knows that in the fish-market at 
Barcelona, which has the best bull-ring in Spain, fish are classified 
according to their colour as red, white, and blue. ... Or you 
know, when she pretends to be a cricketer and goes through the 
motion of asking for middle-and-leg, and (after a few other 
gestures) sits on the floor, her head tilted at a certain angle, that 
she represents Michelangelo’s Sybil — the last two syllables of the 
word * possible*^ and you guess that the newspaper headline which 
she has been asked to convey is Probables v. Possibles. A strong, 
irrelevant love-element may be present on these occasions — an 
intellectual equivalent of the telepathic signals exchanged by 
certain insects when they mysteriously summon each other from 
a dozen miles away for an ecstatic nose-rubbing. It is a very 

[96] 


DAME OCUPACYON 


pleasant feeling, because of its intimacy, and because no other 
player has understood. According to Irish legend, Cuchulain 
and Emir had this same experience when he wooed her in the 
presence of her women. He had never addressed her before, yet 
she guessed the kennings of all his poetic riddles and answered 
him in kind. The women sat gaping and nonplussed. But this is 


private poetry; trespassers are prosecuted. 

Now, the Goddess of Fame, according to Skelton’s Garland of 
Laurell, employs a registrar called Dame Ocupacyon; when one 
brings her a poem, it is she who decides whether to enrol it in 
the public records. Dame Ocupacyon has a good general educa- 
tion, reasonableness, and a sympathetic heart. She takes a shrewd 
look at your lines, and if they make sense and demand no tele- 
pathic knowledge of your more capricious thought-processes 
gives them her imprimatur. She will pass, for example, a reference 
to Isabella-coloured satin, because whoever the original Isabella 
may have been (some say she was the Archduchess who swore 
not to change her shift until Ostende fell), Isabella is generally 
recognized as a sort of greyish yellow. But ‘dressed in Susan- 
coloured satin’ will not pass her scrutiny. Dame Ocupacyon 
knows many Susans, of widely-yarying complexions, eyes and 
hair, and therefore with different tastes in dress; whereas this 
poet seems to know only one Susan who always wears, perhaps, 
the same layender-grey — or is it brown-red.^ 

To the Impressionist, Expressionist, Futurist, and Surrealist 
techniques, a Byzantine technique has recently been added: let 

Lycophronic In current English this would be 

Tdl “• '"Ejects all over-erudite references in^the 

SiesTlinJ she would be very sticky with 


As Hymenoptera jinked ^ Isaria 
( Which are Torrubia's conidia) 
So we are kimed and huffed. 


sensSev ’ lamination, that these lines make public 
fnends by petty enemies. But she holds that a lels £-£ched 

[97] 


THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


metaphor with a closer and more exact relevance to the personal 
situation could surely have been hit upon. And that the reader 
who knows the meaning of ‘ jinked \ ‘kimed*, and ‘huffed* will 
be unlikely to know what Isaria or conidia are; and vice versa. 
It is easy for a quiz-poet to acquire a reputation as a polymath 
by borrowing recondite words and phrases from various special- 
ized books and mixing them up Lycophronically. I am far from 
being a polymath myself; and, in fact, to knock together the 
Hymenoptera verse just quoted, I was lazy enough to use only 
the H— K volume of The Oxford English Dictionary. 

An absorbing subject is the poetry-reader*s notion of boredom. 
Some readers, with theatrical rather than poetic interests, are 
entranced by tricks of rhetoric, and expect from the poem a wide 
range of fantasies, irrelevant to its central statement. Personally, 

I expect poems to say what they mean in the simplest and most 
economical way; even if the thought they contain is complex. 

I do not mind exalted language in poetry any more than I mind 
low language, but rhetoric disgusts me. I confess that I am 
equally allergic to oratorical prose; I read for information only, 
and cannot manage even Gibbon*s Decline and Fall with patience, 
though it is a book of great interest, its ideas well marshalled, 
and the language chaste. I don*t at all mind what are called dull 
books, so long as they are factual, accurate, and unpretentious: 
Brazilian politics, the digestive apparatus of sea-urchins, the art 
of wig-making — all is reading matter to me. 

I don't even mind the so-called dull poems — such as Clare's 
Nature poems — if they ring true; but at the least touch of 
rhetoric or insincerity I close the book without marking the page. 


What duller poem, for example, could you imagine than an 
early nineteenth-century description in heroic couplets of a 
retired village grocer and his wife, written by the authoress of 
Twinkle^ Twinkle^ Little Star} Yet Jane Taylor's The Mayor 
and Mayoress happens to ring true as a poem because the appalling 
dullness of the theme struck her between the eyes, and she 


recorded it with devilish female exactness: 


In yonder red-brick mansion^ tight and square^ 
Just at the towns commencement ^ lives the mayor . 
Some yards of shining gravely fenc d with boxj 
Lead to the painted portal — where one knocks: 

m 


DAME OCUPACYON 


There^ in the left-hand parlour^ all in state^ 

Sit he and she^ on either side the grate. 

But though their goods and chattels,, sound and new,, 
Bespeak the owners very well to do, 

His worship's wig and morning suit betray 
Slight indications of an humbler day, , , . 

That long,, low shop, where still the name appears. 

Some doors below, they kept for forty years: 

And there, with various fortunes, smooth and rough. 
They sold tobacco, cojfee, tea and snuff, , . , 

Her thoughts, unused to take a longer flight 
Than from the left-hand counter to the right. 

With little change are vacillating still 
Between his worship' s glory and the till. 

Rhetoric may be the boast of the theatre — as Christopher Fry’s 
admirers claim — but it is the curse of poetry. This must be 
emphasized, especially here at Cambridge where rhetoric was at 
one time the principal subject of study; after all, the Universities 
owe their existence to the medieval need for trained priests and 
lawyers. Rhetoric is the art of persuasion by a public speaker. 
When the primitive Christian Church went Greek, its leaders 
decided to abandon, as impractical, Jesus’s strict injunctions: that 
his disciples should not premeditate when confronted with the 
enemies of their faith, but should rely on the inspiration of the 
Holy Spirit. Gentile Christian priests were then trained in the 
pagan schools of rhetoric, where the curriculum was based on 
close observations of the psychology of juries and public meetings 
observations which helped the trained orator to make a poor 
or even a bad, cause appear good. With the adoption of Chris- 
uanity as a state religion the schools of rhetoric passed under 
Ghurch control; but the pagan models were preserved. It is no 
business of mine to evaluate the damage done to simple faith by 
the tropes, tricks, and traductions of rhetoric; but I am convinced 
that poets who rely on rhetoric rather than inspiration are 
behaving unprofessionally. However, I must be careful not to 
overstate niy case. A University education in rhetoric does of 
course, make students properly conscious of logic and syntax 

[99] 


THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 

and emphasis, and the rhythm and weight of their phrases, and 

the history and concealed meanings of individual words — all of 

which are useful in poetic composition. It is the direction of these 

studies which is anti-poetic; the student remains perpetually 

conscious of an imaginary audience whose resistance to argu- 
ment he must beat down. 

A poem (must I say again?) is addressed to the Goddess. She 
smilingly forgives clumsiness in the young or uneducated — early 
poems have a nap, or bloom, not found in later poems. And she 
appreciates the loving care put into a poem by the more experi- 
enced; she dislikes slovens. But she insists on truth, and ridicules 
the idea of using argument or rhetorical charm to overbear her 
intuition of truth. Milton fell from grace because he allowed his 
rhetorical skill, learned at Christ’s, to dull his poetic sense. 
While reading his minor poems* one becomes aware of poetry 
still struggling against the serpent coils. It is the unhappy 
flutterings of its wings in Comas and the Nativity Ode — I am 
thinking particularly of Sabrina Fair and ‘the yellow-skirted 
fays that give these poems their poignant and, on the whole, 
distasteful character. Earlier, when writing the sixth poem of 
his Latin Silvae^ at the age of twenty-three, Milton could ener- 
getically argue the cause of the ‘Golden Muse* against his father, 
on whom he depended for his allowance. Milton’s father, a 
scrivener and a well-known musician, held that poetry was a 
pleasant relaxation for grave scholars and noblemen in the after- 
noon of their life, but that his son should choose some other sort 
of profession. Milton flatters him by saying: ‘Apollo made you 
a musician, and me a poet.’ Here is Skeat’s translation: 

. . . Hence it is that as sire and son we win 
Dividual lot in his divinity. 

To hate my gentle Muse though thou dost feign. 

Thou const not hate her. Father, I maintain: 

Since thou hast neer hid me to go where lies 
The broad highway and easier field of gain. 

Where hopes gleam sure of coin in mounded heaps 
Not haV St me to the Bar and laws we keep — 

Too often wrench' ds nor with distasteful cries 
Mine ears dost peal: but seeking only power 
My mind well-stor d with richer wealth to dower 

[loo] 


DAME OCUPACYON 


In deep retirement from the city's roar^ 

Lettest me thus in jocund leisure stride 
As if at Phoebus's side. 

With benediction from our Muses' shore. 

The poem ends with Milton's promise to celebrate his father's 
kindness in immortal verse. 

So we come to the Theme of Fame. Skelton raised it; but 
only in joke. The Garland of Laurell^ an account of his induction 
into the Temple of Fame, is a comic fantasy written for the 
Countess of Surrey, the Ladies Isabel and Miniall Howard, Lady 
Ann Dakers of the South, and his other women-friends at Court. 
Fame was no joke for Milton, but an obsession, as appears 
throughout the Silvae, especially in his letter to Manso, and in 
Lycidas. Thirst for fame explains much that is dishonest and 
ruthless in his life, besides his passionate cultivation of polemical 
oratory. Milton appears never to have loved anyone, after the 
death of his friend Charles Diodati, except himself; and certainly 
had no women-friends with whom he could be on joking terms. 
Men became the objects of his adulation or execration only as they 
advanced or impeded his career. While an undergraduate he 
wrote two elegies on bishops, and a Fifth of November poem 
m which he sentenced to ‘pains condign’ (though the dupes of 
batan) the treasonable wretches who tried to encompass the 
death of our devout King James; he had his eye, it seems, on a 
Koyal Fellowship. But when the coveted fellowship went else- 
where, and a Bishop, a former tutor with whom he had quarrelled 
proved to have been responsible, Milton lost all respect for 
bishops. In Etkonoclastes he justifies the judges who sentenced 
l^ing J ames s devouter son Charles to similar ‘pains condign’ at 
the blo^. His adulation of Queen Christina of Sweden in The 
^cond Defence ophe English People contrasts so revoltingly with 
his obscene libels on Charles in The First Defence, that nothing 
which he^ wrote later when influenced by the Muse ‘ of Horeb 

Poets have aimed at two kinds of poetic fame: the first con- 
temporapr fame, is suspect because it is commonly acquired by 

rather than for the Muse-that is to say for poetic neceSty 

[lOl] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 

The second, posthumous fame, is irrelevant; though, if the poet 
falls in love and becomes obsessed with terrors of death, he may 
be forgiven (as we forgive Shakespeare) for contemplating the 
immortality bestowed on his beloved by means of a poem. 
Milton was obsessed by thoughts of his own fame. His strongest 
reaction to the news of Lycidas’s drowning was: ‘Heavens, it 

might have been myself! Cut down before my prime, cheated 
of immortal fame ! ’ 

I grant that a poet cannot easily imagine a future in which he 
is no longer active; and poets do tend to live in a timeless world, 
where their predecessors are as real to them as their contem- 
poraries. But I find that the predecessors whom I love, and for 
whom I might thoughtlessly lay a place at the supper table, are 
not those who, when they wrote, had designs on me as their 
posterity, but those who lived in the present and trafficked with 
the past. As I wrote once: 

To evoke posterity 

Is to weep on your own grave. . . . 

And the punishment is fixed: 

To be found fully ancestral^ 

To be cast in bronze for a city square^ 

To dribble green in times of rain 
And stain the pedestal. 

Spiders in the spread beard; 

A life proverbial 
On clergy lips a-cackle; 

Eponymous institutes^ 

Their luckless architecture. 

Two more dates of life and birth 
For the hour of special study 
From which all boys and girls of mettle 
Twice a week play truant 
And worn excuses try. . , . 

Poetic integrity. Of what does it consist.^ I should not like 
to think that integrity once lost is, like a maidenhead, irrecover- 
able. The young may, I believe, become actively engaged in 

[102] 


DAME OCUPACYON 


non-poetic activities, and then repent, to re-establish themselves 
firmly on poetic ground. By non-poetic activities I mean those 
that prejudice the poet’s independence of judgement; such as a 
religious life which imposes ecclesiastical control on his private 
thoughts; or politics, which bind him to a party line; or science, 
if it is old-fashioned enough to deny the importance of magic; 
or philosophy, if he is expected to generalize about what he 
knows to be personally unique; or schoolmastering, if he must 
teach what he considers neither true nor necessary. Ideally, poets 
should avoid enrolling themselves in any club, society, or guild: 

for fear they may find themselves committed to group action of 
which they cannot individually approve. 

Many solutions have been found to the problem of how to 
separate oneself from the non-poetic world without turning 
anti-social. The fact is, that in this carefully organized country 
no poet can altogether avoid the responsibilities of citizenship 
even if he should be unfit for military service; though to be a 
poet IS a whole-time occupation to which all else must be sub- 
ordinated. William Davies had solved his problem by becoming 
a common tramp, until he lost a foot (stealing a ride on an 
American railway truck)— then wrote his Autobiography and 
lived quietly by his pen in London; nevertheless, he was sum- 
moned OM day for jury service. He described his experiences in 
a poem. The Inquest, which I have always admired both for its 
passionate detachment from the matter in hand (namely the 
assessment of factual evidence about a child’s death); and for the 
troubled ambiguity of the: ‘So help me God! I took that 


I took my oath I would inquire. 
Without affection, hate, or wrath. 
Into the death of Ada W right — 

So help me God! I took that oath. 



When I went out to see the corpse. 

The four months’ babe that died so young 
I judged u was seven pounds in weight. 

And little more than one foot long. 

[103] 


THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


One eye^ that had a yellow lid^ 

W IS shut — so was the mouthy that smiled; 

The left eye open^ shining bright — 

It seemed a knowing little child. 

For as I looked at that one eye^ 

It seemed to laugh and say with glee: 

‘ What caused my death you'll never know — 
Perhaps my mother murdered me,' 

When I went into court again^ 

To hear the mother s evidence — 

It was a love-child^ she explained^ 

And smiled^ for our intelligence. 

* Now j Gentlemen of the Jury^ said 

The coroner — * this woman s child 

By misadventure met its death,* 

* Aye ^ aye* we said. The mother smiled. 

And I could see that child's one eye 

Which seemed to laugh,, and say with glee: 

* What caused my death you'll never know — 

Perhaps my mother murdered me,' 

Davies’s main difficulty was that, once he had written his auto- 
biography, little remained to sell but his poems, of which he 
wrote and published too many; however, this was not a mortal 
sin — the unnecessary ones drop out, the necessary ones remain. 
Once a poet has known the excitement of conceiving a poem 
and taking it through various drafts, still under the same excite- 
ment, the craving will always be with him. When it becomes 
oppressive, he often puts himself into a receptive posture, keeps 
pen and paper handy, and waits for the miracle of the Muse 
Goddess’s appearance; then grows impatient, begins doodling 
with words (as you give the planchette a little push to make it 
start), and soon finds a promising rhyme or phrase. Thus he 
contrives a visitation — not of the Goddess but of one of those 
idle, foolish, earth-bound spirits that hover around the planchette 
board, or the pillows of sick men. An extraordinary difference in 

[104] 



DAME OCUPACYON 


quality can be seen, for example, between Coleridge entranced 
and Coleridge unentranced — between Kubla Khan and Frost at 
Midnight on the one hand, and on the other Lewd, The Nightin- 
gale, and The Old Man of the Alp — all written in the same year 
(1798). Every poet knows in his heart which are the necessary 
and which the unnecessary poems. But too often he tries to fool 
himself that all are necessary. Necessary poems are rare; and 
poems in which the original necessity has not been blunted by 
unskilful elaboration are rarer still. Ideally, only these should 
be published, but flawed gems are none the less gems, and no 
poem is entirely flawless; so it should be enough in a Collected 
Poems to eliminate at least the glass and synthetic stones. Yet 

few poets are sufficiently ruthless to make a thorough job even 
of this. 

A poet has certain natural loyalties — say, to a village where he 
spent his childhood, to a University where he was well treated, 
to a regiment with which he saw active service, to his family if 
they have respected his intransigeance. Such ties of affection 
need not prejudice his critical judgement, and he must take care 
never to join an organization where he will be expected to con- 
done actions or attitudes of which he disapproves; or be told 
where he must live, how he must dress, and what sort of friends 
to avoid. A young poet down from the University is often 
tempted to go in for broadcasting, or publishing, or literary 
journalism. Yet he would be well advised to ask the B.B.C. for 
a job only as messenger or sound-technician, or the publishing 
house for a job as a packer or vanman, and the literary weekly 
for a job in the circulation department. Any position that makes 
him condone the printing or broadcasting of poems which he 
himself would not choose to print or broadcast is a dangerous one. 

It is often said that poetry is unconcerned with morals; but 
this needs amendment. Of course, Frangois Villon, Harefoot 
Bilh and Billy Gashade (author of the Jesse James ballad) seem 
W have litde in common, morally speaking, with Richard Rolle 
1 homas Traherne, and Henry Vaughan. But the first three were 
at least true to the principles of honour which prevail amone 
thieves, and the remaining three to the principles of sainthood- 
^eir poems were honest declarations of personal integrity. Had’ 
Harefoot Bill turned stool-pigeon or Methodist preadier, it 
would have been as shocking as if Traherne had been caught 

[lOf] 


THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


robbing coaches on Hounslow Heath; or if either had tried to 
imitate the fashionable writers of his day. 

And though it may be argued that no acceptable code of 
sexual morals can be laid down for the poet, I am convinced 
that deception, cruelty, meanness, or any violation of a woman’s 
dignity are abhorrent to the Goddess; and that she loathes the 
deliberate sexual perversion which has male self-sufficiency for 
its object, and which has never been more boldly pursued by 
would-be poets than today. 

It may also be argued that no acceptable religious code can 
be laid down for the poet. All I propose to say here is that one 
of the several strands in the Christian Faith, namely the mystery 
of the ever-Virgin Mother and her Son — the crucified king whose 
seasonal birth, initiation, death, and resurrection are celebrated 
by countryfolk — is wholly poetic. But other strands — the theo- 
logical, the ecclesiastical, the liturgical — I find equally unpoetic. 
Anonymous carol-makers of pre-Reformation days did not find 
it hard to reconcile poetry with faith, because popular Catholicism 
was still closely connected with the pagan cult of ‘Our Lady’ — 
the Goddess as Queen of Elphame, who initiated Thomas the 
Rimer into her mysteries. Take, for instance, the sixteenth- 
century carol The Fawcon Hath Born my Mak Away: 


Lully ^ lulley; lully^ lulley; 

The fawcon hath born my mak away. 


He bare hym vp^ he bare hym down; 
He bare hym into an orchard brown. 


In that orchard ther was an hally 
That was hangid with purpill and pall. 


And in that hall ther was a bede; 

Hit was hangid with gold so rede. 

And yn that bed ther lythe a knyghty 
His wowndes bledying day and nyght. 

By that bedes side ther kneleth a may^ 

And she wepeth both nyght and day. 

And by that beddes side ther stondith a ston^ 
^Corpus Chris tV wretyn theron. 

[106] 



DAME OCUPACYON 


Though in a North StafFordshire version the lady is described 
as the Virgin Mary, an earlier Scottish version calls her, more 
cautiously, a leal maiden: 


With silver needle and silken thread. 

Stemming the wounds where they did bleed. 

And the knight is not Christ, he is the Queen of Elphame^s 
sacrificed lover: call him Arthur, or Robin Hood, or the Young 
Cordwainer, or what you will. 

Skelton could still write a poem on the Passion free of the 
ecclesiasticism that later clipped George Herbert’s wings, and 

free of the asceticism that made Gerard Manley Hopkins bite his 
nails to the quick: 


W offully araid^ 

My hlode^ man^ 

For the roHy 
It may not be naid; 

My body bloo and wan^ 

W offully araid, 

■ • * Offsharpe thorne I haue worne a crowne on my hede^ 
So paynyd^ so straynyd, so rufull^ so red, , , . 

My fete and handes sore 
The sturdy nailis borej 
What myit I suffir more 
Than I haue don^ O man^for the? 

Cum when thou listy wellcum to me, 

W offully araide. 


I do not know the present attitude of the Roman Church to 

tn 1916, when I was recovering from wounds near 
Quarr Abbey in the Isle of Wight, the good Benedictine monks 
tried to persuade me to join their Order after the War. One 
tempting argument was that they had a wonderful library of 
20,cw volumes— on every possible subject— agriculture, music, 

istoiy , mechanics, printing, mathematics But I asked Father 

Blanchon-Lasserye, the Guest-master: ‘What about poetry?’ 
Mo, my son, he answered, ‘we have no poetry. It is not 
necessary. As for the Protestant Church: a number of English 

[107] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 

clergymen once wrote most unecclesiastical poems — William 
Stevenson ( Back and side go bare, go bare*), Herrick and Swift 
among them but this merely meant that in their days a priest 
could be a poet and forget about his priesthood. Since the early 
nineteenth century such an act of oblivion has been exceedingly 
difficult to perform. The last poet to do so was the gifted and 
strange Canon Frederick Langbridge of Limerick, who spent a 
great deal of his time writing lyrics for Edwardian musical 
comedies, and whose poems, The Power of Red Michael^ pub- 
lished more than forty-five years ago, were as impressive as they 
were heretical. 

A poet*s integrity, then, consists in his not forming ties that 
can impair his critical independence, or prevent him from telling 
the whole truth about anything, or force him to do anything out 
of character. It consists also in his refusal to pay more respect 
to persons than decency demands, or their attainments permit. 
This does not, of course, give him the right to argue with a parson 
in the pulpit; or fail to rise in a public place when God Save the 
Queen is played; or show contempt of Court by incivility to a 
magistrate. But he will not permit a parson to lecture him from 
anywhere else but the pulpit; or the Crown to curtail his tradi- 
tional liberties; or a magistrate to insult him out of court. He 
will also stubbornly resist all editorial attempts to alter any line 
of his poetry, unless the editor clearly has a better sense of the 
poem*s needs than himself; which is possible, though unlikely. 

And he will never include in his budget the money he gets 
from the sale of poems. If poems happen, let them be bought and 
published by whatever journal asks for them. If they gradually 
pile up, let them be published in volume form. If reputable 
anthologies then want to reprint a few, why not,^ But any money 
paid for a poem should, I believe, be regarded as if it were an 
unexpected legacy from a distant relative, whose favour one has 
not courted and whose death one has not anticipated. It should 
be spent on things of which the Goddess would approve; such 
as plain texts of the better poets, or the planting of a mulberry 
tree. . . . Let prose, or some other activity, pay the grocer and 
the gas collector. 

According to one school of thought, a poet's life should be 
full of action, sexual adventure, and social event. Byron wrote 
to Thomas Moore: 


[io8] 



DAME OCUPACYON 


I think very highly of Hogg as a poet; but he, and half of 

these Scotch and Lake troubadors, are spoilt by living in little 

circles and petty societies. London and the world is the only 

place to take the conceit out of a man — in the milling phrase . . . 

Lord, Lord, if these home-keeping minstrels had crossed your 

Atlantic, or my Mediterranean, and tasted a little open boating 

in a white squall — or a gale in ‘the Gut’ — or the Bay of Biscay, 

with no gale at all how it would enliven and introduce them to 

a few of the sensations !— to say nothing of an illicit amour or 

two upon shore, in the way of an essay upon the Passions, 

beginning with a simple adultery, and compounding it as they 
went along. 


It is true that small provincial circles are most restrictive unless 
the members happen to be well chosen. And London until, say, 
1914, was a wonderful place for polishing one’s wits. Friends 
were not too busy making a living; or too fatigued by the noise 
of traffic, or too short-handed in the house to spend long hours 
together. When a man returned from a tour abroad, his friends 
would gather round and keep him posted with what had been 
happening in the world since they last saw him. My experience, 
when I come to London from Majorca for an annual fortnight 
or ffiree weeks, is that people ask me what is happening! 

However, Byron is over-stating the case for physical sensation: 

1 doubt whether Shakespeare, when his early deer-stealing days 

had ended, ever so much as hired a wherry for a visit to the Isle 

ot Dogs. And as for compound adultery: it never did Byron 

himself much good, and poets have written well enough with- 
out It. ® 


Perhaps the nearest approach 
moral code for a poet is Swift’s: 


to an acceptable, all-purpose 


Stoop not to int' rest ^ flattery or deceit y 
Nor with hired thoughts be thy devotion paid; 
Learn to disdain their mercenary aid, 

^ this thy sure defencey thy brazen wally 
Know no base actiony at no guilt turn pale. 


Let me say a word or two about parody. A parody is not a 

sucT’ °r commissions a parodist 

such as Calverley or Lewis Carroll, to express her disapproS of 

[109] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 

poets who have behaved ridiculously. Parody is a form of 
destructive magic, like that employed by Russian forest-witches: 
the witch walks silently behind her victim, mimicking his gait, 
his carriage, and his gestures. After establishing a complete 
rapport with him, she pretends to stumble over a tree root. The 
victim inevitably does the same; but while the witch falls soft, he 
falls hard. No true poem can be parodied; because no true poem 
can be imitated. Calverley parodied Morris’s Two Red Roses 
Under the Moon with his Butter and Eggs and a Pound of Cheese\ 
and Carroll parodied Southey’s Old Father JVilliam\ in each 
case so successfully that the originals could never be recited 
again without a blush. But Jane Taylor’s Twinkle^ Twinkle^ 
Little Star survives, undaunted by Twinkle^ Twinkle^ Little Bat, 
Wordsworth often parodied himself so unmercifully that 
J. K. Stephen’s lines are supererogatory, if just; 

Two voices are there: one is of the deep^ 

1 1 learns the storm cloud's thunderous melody^ 

Now roars ^ now murmurs with the changing sea^ 

Now bird-like pipes ^ now closes soft in sleep: 

And one is of an old halfwitted sheep 
Which bleats articulate monotony,, 

And indicates that two and one are three,, 

That grass is green,, lakes damp,, and mountains steep: 

Andy Wordsworth, both are thine. . . . 

And Tennyson, late and early, also parodied himself. 

She stood upon the castle wall, 

Oriana: 

She watch'd my crest among them all, 

Oriana: 

She saw me fight, she heard me ccdl. 

When forth there stept a foeman tall, 

Oriana: 

Atween me and the castle wall, 

Oriana, 

Calliope once passed word to substitute the brutal phrase 
* Bottom Upwards!' for the romantic invocation ^Oriana!' Try 

[no] 



DAME OCUPACYON 


it for yourselves, especially from the point where Tennyson 
writes : 


The battle deepened in its place^ 

But I was down upon my face ^ 

Oriana, 

They should have stabT d me where I lay^ 
Oriana/ 

How could I rise and come away^ 

Oriana? 

How could I look upon the day? 

They should have stabFd me where I lav. 
Oriana — 

They should have trod me into clay ^ 
Oriana, 



LECTURE VI 

THESE BE YOUR GODS, O ISRAEL! 


I WAS never one to stroll down the street with a catapult and 
break windows just for the fun of hearing the tinkle of glass 
and seeing furious faces peering out as I scuttle away. But to 
break windows from the inside amounts, at times, to a civic duty. 
One smells gas, bursts open the kitchen door, turns off the oven- 
tap, wraps a towel around one’s fist and breaks every pane in the 
kitchen window; for which a commendatory word or two may 
be expected from the magistrate — or from the coroner, according 
as the suicide is successful or not. 

An anonymous leader-writer in The Times Literary Supple- 
ment^ discussing the poetry of today, has described ours as an 
‘Age of Consolidation’. I find ‘Consolidation’ too active a 
word, and should prefer ‘Age of Acquiescence’ or ‘Age of 
Acceptance’; which, of course, in the Welfare State, covers a 
wider range of subjects than poetry and literature in general. 
Most of my younger contemporaries have been acquiescing in 
an organized attempt, by critics, publicists, and educationalists, 
to curtail their liberty of judgement, and make them bow the 
knee before a row of idols, whose rites are quite incompatible 
with devotion to the Muse herself. 

Idolatry is nothing new. The Goddess, or the God, being 
held too mysterious and exacting a figure for public worship, 
idols are set up as intermediaries — like the hero-images in Classical 
Greece — to focus the vague yearnings and aspirations of the 
unenlightened mass. As Isaiah remarks: 


He maketh a god even his own graven image and falleth down 
unto it and prayeth unto it and saith: ‘Deliver me, for thou art 
my God I ’ 

Yet the ancients at least waited until Homer and Virgil were 

[II2] 



THESE BE YOUR GODS 


decently dead before they paid them heroic honours. The living 
poet hero is a modernism; I think I am right in saying that 
Petrarch was the first poet to receive quasi-divine honours during 
his lifetime. And once an idol is set up it cannot easily be removed; 
but slowly moulders down the years, as Byron’s and Words- 
worth’s have done. Tennyson’s idol began to moulder soon 
after his death, because it had become identified with much that 
was unpopular in Victorianism. Thus Thomas Hardy wrote in 
his An Ancient to Ancients twenty-five years later: 

The bower we shrined to Tennyson, 

Gentlemen, 

Is roof-wrecked; damps there drip upon 
^^ttts, the creeper-nails are rust. 

The spider is sole deniien; 

Even she who voiced those rhymes is dust. 

Gentlemen.' 


■ when I first made poetry the most important thing 

in my life, no idols were forced on me. English literature did 
not form part of the curriculum at Charterhouse, and I could go 
loragmg for myself in blessed freedom. Moreover, war broke 
out just when I should have gone to Oxford; I volunteered and 
took a commission m an unliterary line-regiment, where I spent 
the next four and a half years. I had never met a poet of my 
own generation until, by a stroke of luck, Siegfried Sassoon was 

through him and Edward Marsh 
(who had befriended me while I was still at school) I came to 

taow se^ral of the real poets then extant— including Hardy, 
William Davies, and Wilfred Owen. 

A wave of popular excitement had been raised, two or three 

Masefield’s bold use of the word 

^oet s Corner— except the insufferable Kipling (swapping ’ats 
with IS gal Britannia on ’Ampstead ’Eath). M^c wote^ ^ 


swear word in a rustic slum 
A simple swear word is to some^ 
To Masefield^ something more, 

[113] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


A second wave of popular excitement was raised by the death 
of Rupert Brooke during the Dardanelles campaign. Brooke’s 
patriotic sonnet ‘If I should die ’ was included in Edward 
Marsh’s Georgian Poetry^ and the subsequent three volumes set 
poetical taste for the duration of the War, and for some years 
after. 


But there were no living idols even in the early ’twenties. 
Thomas Hardy was known mainly for his novels; Charles 
Doughty for his Arabia Deserta; William Davies for his Auto- 
biography of a Super Tramp\ A. E. Housman for his Latin 
scholarship. I was still young then, yet could regard them as my 
friends and colleagues; simply because the current text-books of 
English literature stopped at Tennyson and Swinburne — we 
were all equally post-Canonical. Thus, though I had been 
attracted at the age of sixteen by the soft music of Yeats’s Countess 
Cathleen and Wanderings of O'lsin^ he was not yet a ‘required’ 
poet; and I had felt no compunction about going behind him to 
literal translations of the Irish texts from which he quarried. 

How things have changed since those days! Contemporary 
English literature has insinuated itself into the Public School 
and Secondary School curriculum. It is now recognized by the 
English Faculty here too. Even I have my niche in the popular 
text-book: I am briefly mentioned with the Georgian War Poets 
of 191 4-18 {see p. ii), successors to the Imagists {see p. i) and 
themselves superseded {see p. ii) by the Modernist Movement 
of the ’twenties; which merged {see p. iii) into the Left Wing 
Movement of the ’thirties; which was suffocated {see p. 141) by 
the 1939—45 War; which gave a pause for reflection, the new 
poets being few and inhibited. And for the setting up of five 
living idols — namely Yeats, Pound, Eliot, Auden, and Dylan 
Thomas {see separate chapters devoted to eacK). 

Are you men and women of culture.^ Then you are expected 
not only to regard these five as the most ‘significant’ modem 
writers but to have read all the ‘significant’ literature that has 
grown up about them; because ‘Age of Consolidation’ implies 


‘Age of Criticism’. The educational emphasis is now on appre- 
ciation of contemporary as well as ancient literature, and since 
to appreciate no longer means ‘to evaluate’, as it did in earlier 
days, but has become a synonym for ‘to admire’, there must be 
recognized objects of official appreciation — namely idols. 

[” 4 ] 



THESE BE YOUR GODS 


Ladies and gentlemen, relax! None of this lore is necessary 
for your salvation, once you have satisfied the examiners. There 
are only poems, very few of these in any generation, and there 
are periodic verse-fashions. And as for the old-clothesman of 
literature, the critic who starts by writing D.Phils. on such 
subjects as W. H. Auden and the Freudian Theory of Transference, 
or T. S. Eliot as Anticipated by Duns Scotusj and who then 
applies for a Foundation Research Fellowship, because he is 
compiling a scholarly edition (with cancelled first drafts) of all 
Dylan Thomas’s advertisement copy for Messrs. J. Walter 
Thompson’s Night Custard account; or perhaps a polyglot con- 
cordance to Pound’s Pisan Cantos — as for the old clothesman, 
leave him to his industry! Waste no money on books about 
poetry; not even on mine. Build up a library of plain texts: the 
poet who pleads his case before Dame Ocupacyon is expected 
to present a plain, unannotated text of his poems, and no sup- 
porting documents or testimonials whatsoever. I am here to 
remind you that poets are not idols, nor are idols poets; and that 
the Muse alone deserves your love. The idols are well swaddled 
against anything less destructive than a cobalt bomb; and all my 
iconoclastic zeal, so far from turning the whole temple blue, will 

not so much as dent a protective sandbag. Nevertheless, here it 
comes. 

First, William Butler Yeats. The younger Yeats had wit 
industry, a flexible mind, a good ear, and the gift of falling 
romantically in love — admirable qualities for a beginner. His 
less admirable qualities were greed, impatience, and a lack of 
proportion, or humour, for which no amount of wit can com- 
pensate. Yeats’s father once confided to my father: ‘Willie has 
found a very profitable little by-path in poetry’; and this was 
fair enough. The early poems fall short of the pathetic only by 
thei^r genuine feeling for Ireland and their irreproachable anvil- 
craft. They are the work of a negligently-dressed, misty-eyed, 
murmunng Dubliner, living in the Fenian past; ‘a darling man’ 
o his friends Douglas Hyde, Dr P. W. Joyce, A.E., J. M. Synge, 
Lionel Johnson, Lady Gregory, and the rest, who supplied him 
with certain up-to-date convictions. What he would most have 
Iked to do was what his American contemporary, Vachel 
Lindsay, had done— to hawk his own ballads about the country- 
side; but he lacked Lindsay’s simple courage. And how gooZa 

[” 5 ] 


THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 

poet Lindsay could be, when he really said what he meant — as 
in Bryan^ Bryariy Bryan — and was not being corny or coy! 
A literary event which startled critics in the ’twenties was the 
emergence of a new, well-groomed, cynical Yeats, with a manly 
voice, florid gestures, and an attractive wife, who had cast his 
singing robes away and his wild harp flung behind him. Yeats 
explained that he had been plagued by a swarm of imitators; this 
new technique was the only way to be rid of them.. It is now 
claimed that the transmogrification was largely the work of Ezra 
Pound, who persuaded Yeats that the Celtic Twilight belonged 
to yesterday, and that today’s sun beamed on the buccaneer and 
smart-stepping salesman. But Yeats needed little persuasion; he 
had written to Sturge Moore that he preferred the violent expres- 
sion of error (as in Bernard Shaw or Schopenhauer) to the 
reasonable expression of truth which corrupts by its lack of 
pugnacity. 

When I returned to Oxford, after the War, Yeats was lodging 
above the Shamrock Tearooms in the Broad; but curiosity never 
drew me there. Now, Yeats was Irishman enough to realize that, 
however great a man’s industry, however careful his craftsman- 
ship, all is sounding brass and tinkling cymbal, unless divine 
‘grace’ is added. (Pleasant to be able to quote St Paul and not 
get into trouble!) ‘Grace’ is the presence of the Muse Goddess; 
but she does not appear unless her poet has something urgent to 
say and to win her consent a poet must have something urgent 
to say. Yeats had a new technique, but nothing to say, unless 
one counts the literary ballads written for the Irish War of Liber- 
ation — in which he took no active part. Instead of the Muse, 
he employed a ventriloquist’s dummy called Crazy Jane. But 
still he had nothing to say. What will a poor countryman do if 
he has no sheep of his own to shear and badly needs a warm 
waistcoat? He will go out with a bag into his neighbour’s fields 
and collect strands of wool from hedges and brambles. This 
Yeats did. 

Raymond Mortimer recently called Yeats ‘a bower bird 
collecting bright coloured rags and pebbles from the Hebrew 
Kahbalahy the Vedanta^ the Mabinogiony the alchemists, Sweden- 
borg, Blake, Nietzsche, and the Theosophists.’ 

That is correct. He was now using his wife as a medium, and 
took the spirit babblings of a certain sixteenth-century Moor, a 

[1x6] 



THESE BE YOUR GODS 


previous incarnation of his own, as inspiratory material for his 
poems. This explained a dialogue reported to me by an under- 
graduate visitant to No. 4. Broad Street, which had seemed a 
non sequitun 

undergraduate: Have you written any poems recently, Sir? 

YEATS: No, my wife has been feeling poorly and disinclined. 

A few years later Yeats came to Majorca with an Indian 

disciple, and worked there on an English version of the Upani- 

shads. That was the period of his Voronoff operation and its 

tragi-comic sequels, which were caft gossip there for months. 
He confessed: 


You think it horrible that lust and rage 
Should dance attention upon my old age; 
They were not such 
else have I to 



i plague when I was young; 
spur me into song^ 


While in Majorca, he wrote asking Laura Riding and myself as 
co-authors of A Survey of Modernist Poetry, for advice: which 
younger English poets should he include in his new anthology? 
We suggested James Reeves, whose first book we had just pub- 
lished. Yeats rejected Reeves with this really devilish comment: 

Too reasonable, too truthful. We poets should be good liars 

reniembering always that the Muses are women and prefer the 
embrace of gay, warty lads. 


So we declined to contribute ourselves. 

Raymond Mortimer goes on to say that Yeats could turn any 

^bbish borrowed from the planchette, or Rosicrucianism, or 

Mme Blavatsky, into hard and burnished gold, and that few 

poets have written verse so strong in the three virtues of terse- 
ness, tensity, and eloquence. 

Yes; Yeats thought of himself as an alchemist, but (as I wrote 
somewhere) the alchemists never succeeded in making gold 
om of anything but gold; Aough they did manufacture 4riatic 

m ‘disguised their secret formulae 

m a mythologi^l cypher, which delighted Yeats and has since 
emted Jimg, though neither of them was chemist enough to 
crack It. The early-medieval German monk Rugerus wrote- 

[“7] 


THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


The Gentiles (Arabs) have an underground house walled with 
stones above and below, with two very small apertures, hardly 
wide enough to admit light. Here they place two old cocks of 
twelve to fifteen years old and feed them well. When they are 
fattened, the heat of their good condition makes them come 
together and lay eggs. The cocks are then removed and toads 
introduced to hatch them; these are given bread for food. 
Chickens then emerge like hens* chickens, but after seven days 
grow serpent*s tails, and but for the stone pavement would 
disappear into the earth. To guard against this, the owners take 
large, round, narrow-mouthed brass vessels, perforated all over, 
and pur the chickens inside, closing the mouths with copper 
and burying them underground, where the creatures are fed for 
six months by the fine earth which enters by the holes. They 
then take the vessels out and heat them under a generous fire 
until the creatures are completely burned. The corpses are then 
left to cool, removed, carefully ground, mixed with the third 
part of the blood of a red man which has been dried and pul- 
verized. . . . 


And so on. The cocks here are sulphates of copper and iron; 
the eggs are lumps of gold ore. The chickens are fumes of 
sulphuric acid. The toad is nitrate of potash. The blood of a 
red man is muriate of ammonia. Fine earth is muriate of soda. . . . 
If Yeats had got hold of this passage, what fun he would have 
had with it! What tersity, what tensity, what eloquence — what 
hard, burnished rubbish! 

Rugerus and his fellow-alchemists (I repeat) never made gold 
out of anything but gold: as poets can never make poems out of 
anything but poetry. However, the alchemists and their less 
mystical successors invented numerous glittering alloys, one of 
which is pinchbeck. The elder Pinchbeck (died 1732), who was 
an honest craftsman, produced some very pretty necklaces and 
brooches; but went to prison because his salesmen tried to pass 
them off as gold. The younger Pinchbeck, who was no crafts- 
man but more careful of the law, mass-produced what is now 
called ‘costume-jewellery*. ‘Pinchbeck’s curious metal* contains 
five parts copper to one of zinc. I mention this because copper 
is a metal traditionally sacred to the Love-goddess, as gold is to 
her royal victims. But zinc, the intrusive metal which lends 
copper that hard, bright, delusive brilliance, has no poetic 

sanctity. 

[118] 



THESE BE YOUR GODS 

Here is Yeats in his early copper period; 

Who dreamed that beauty passes like a dream? 

For these red lips^ with all their mournful pride^ 
Mournful that no new wonder may betide^ 

Troy passed away in one high funeral gleam ^ 

And Usnas children died, , . . 

Who ever would have thought that the author would live to 

introduce the low word bum into a Classical fantasy? Or to 

combine blasphemy with obscenity in The Stick of Incense a 

^uble~entendre about St Joseph? Well: here is the new-model 

Yeats, em-Pounded as far as he was capable, writing a poem called 
Chosen: 


I struggled with the horror of daybreak^ 

I chose it for my lot! If questioned on 
My utmost pleasure with a man 
By some new-married bride^ I take 
That stillness for a theme 
Where his heart my heart did seem 
And both adrift on the miraculous stream 
Where wrote a learned astrologer — 

The Zodiac is changed into a sphere, , , . 

He has taken bold poetic licences: astronomer rhymes with 
though, by the rule on which he was brought up even 

rhw r"' ^'7^ must come in the first 

rhyming line and m the second. He also here rhymes 

on with which can be done decently in Scotland alone: the 

convention being (I think) that half-rhymes are justified by 

poetic necessity only where a prevailing mood of gloom, doubt 

mental stress or confusion would be denied by too perfect an 

h3T"^^ younger days, Yeats would not 

have dared publish three lines as imprecise as these: 


••• If questioned on 
My utmost pleasure with a man 
By some new-married bride 

[” 9 ] 


1 


THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


where the awkward syntax suggests, at first, that he was ques- 
tioned about his utmost pleasure with some man while someone 
else's bride lay close by. Even after the reader has mentally 
corrected this confused image, he is still left with a question by 
the new-married bride which seems to pre-suppose sexual com- 
merce between Yeats and a man, not her husband. The impre- 
cision is developed by the astrologer's remark that ‘The Zodiac is 
changed into a sphere,' to which Yeats supplies the following note: 

The ‘learned astrologer’ was Macrobius, and the particular 
passage was found for me by Dr Sturm, that too little known 
poet and mystic. It is from Macrobius’s comment upon ‘Scipio’s 
Dream* (Lib. I, Cap. XII, Sec. 5): *. . . when the sun is in 
Aquarius, we sacrifice to the Shades, for it is in the sign inimical 
to human life; and from thence, the meeting-place of Zodiac 
and Milky Way, the descending soul by its deduction is drawn 
out of the spherical, the sole divine form, into the cone.’ 

But suppose we happen to have read Macrobius, who is not 
everyone's meat, what then.^ Macrobius does not say that the 
Zodiac becomes turned into a sphere, or anything of the sort. 
He says that the soul when it reaches a certain point in the Zodiac, 
conceived as a girdle, is drawn from the spherical form into the 
conical. But what that means, even Dr Sturm has not elucidated. 

Yeats’s reference to Usna s children^ in the early poem I quoted, 
can be defended: the tale of The Three Sons of Usna was familiar 
to his Gaelic Revivalist readers. But, as I was saying last week, 
to publish a poem strewn with references to which not one 
reader in ten million has the key, is regarded as impudence by 
Dame Ocupacyon. The case becomes worse when the poet 
misquotes; as so often happens with Ezra Pound. 

Pound, an Idaho man, left America with a patchy education 
and settled in London while Edward VII still sat firmly on the 
throne. London was then the acknowledged literary centre of 
the English-speaking world. Pound’s early poems were influ- 
enced by William Morris, Browning, and Yeats, particularly 
Yeats. Pound wrote in Yeatsian style: 


For I was a gaunt^ grave councillor 
Being in all things wisCy and very oldy 
But I have put aside this folly and the cold 
That old age weareth for a cloak. . . - 

[120] 



THESE BE YOUR GODS 


But Pound had no inkling of English tradition, and when he 
tried to write a Villonaud in eighteenth-century English style, 
could get no closer to it than the shockingly illiterate: 


Drink we a skoal to the gallows tree^ 
Franfois and Margot and thee and me^ 
Drink we to Marienne Ydole 
That hell brenn not her o'er cruelly . . , 
Those that we love shall God love less 
And smite always at their faiblenessl 


He ordered his songs to cock a snook at Mr Strachey, Editor 
oiThe Spectator; published among them a Latin poem in 
which the future indicative of gaudeo was given as gaudero; and 
wrote Maelids for Meliads in a poem allegedly based on Ibycus. 
The Thames was not set on fire. 

Before his arrival on these shores he had been teaching English 
Literature in a small mid-Western college, where he was not 
appreciated, and left soon after his arrival. It is my impression 
that Pound never forgave his country this rebuff, and that he 
thereafter ranked himself as a great teacher whose talents were 
too stupendous for the classroom and at whose knees all illumin- 
ated rebels would gather. He made his peace with Walt Whit- 
man whom he had hitherto despised, and wrote in Whitmanesque 


Go, my songs, seek you praise from the young and the 
intolerant^ 

Move among the lovers of perfection alone. 

Seek ever to stand in the hard Sophoclean light. 


issued the Imagiste manifesto 
which offered a hard, precise image as the summum bonum of 

poetry, but Imagism never caught on here. It seemed both 

precious and metrically undisciplined, and (worse) could not be 

harnessed to the war effort of a nation in arms. Slowly the 

f^strated Pound went mad-dog, and bit the other dogs of his 

fedSr''- tad, 

I did not meet Pound until 1922, in T. E. Lawrence’s rooms at 

[121] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 

All Souls . He happened along for a discussion of Provencal 
poems, on which Lawrence was an authority. Lawrence intro- 
duced us: ‘Pound, Graves; Graves, Pound; you’ll dislike each 
other.’ From his poems, I had expected a brawny, loud-voiced, 
swashbuckling American; but he was plump, hunched, soft- 
spoken and ill-at-ease, with the limpest of handshakes. After- 
wards I asked Lawrence: ‘What’s wrong with that man?’ 
Lawrence answered cryptically: ‘Pound has spent his life trying 
to live down a family scandal: he’s Longfellow’s grand-nephew.’ 
Gilbert Highet parodied Pound in 1942; 

. . . And there sat the well-oiled fire-engine 
all ready to strain its gutmost 
eek ow ouf honk honk 

unable to thinfi but ready to quote and paraphrase 
in six languages 
including Provencal . , . 
ei didl didl 

li chat e li fidl 

it took a man like Eira to kill Provencal poetry 
for us » 

‘The well-oiled fire-engine’ is T. S. Eliot’s tribute to Pound’s 
verse technique. And again: 

the Emperor is at Ko 
but No 

silken strings shiver no longer y clashing of smilaXy dark 
nuts on the dry boughy nuts on wet earthy nuts 
ids lonesome too being the only one who understands Caius 

Propertius y 
^AlkaioSy 

Li PUy 

all great guys y 
an I know *emy seel . . . 

However, Pound’s bravado paid in the long run. He knew 
little Latin, yet he translated Propertius; and less Greek, but he 
translated Alcasus; and little Anglo-Saxon, yet he translated 
The Seafarer. I once asked Arthur Waley how much Chinese 



THESE BE YOUR GODS 


Pound knew; Waley shook his head despondently. And I don’t 
claim to be an authority on Provengal, but Majorcan, which my 
children talk most of the time, and which I understand, is closely 
related to it. When my thirteen-year-old boy was asked to 
compare a Provencal text with Pound’s translation, he laughed 
and laughed and laughed. 

Pound’s admirers explain that his translations should not be 
read as such; that his free treatment of the original has supplied 
him with many interesting new ideas. Well, I don’t know. . . . 
It is true that Michelangelo advised young painters to seek 
inspiration (when at a loss) from the damp patches and cracks 
on their bedroom walls. But the corresponding source of poetic 
inspiration would, I suppose, be the litter left behind by foreign 
students in a Bloomsbury hostel; it seems unfair on Alcaeus and 
Li Po and Propertius to treat them so cavalierly. Pound’s 
passionate feelings became centred later in politics and popular 
Konomic theory: he even succeeded for awhile in persuading 
Yeats of the brutal virtues of Fascism. He also convinced himself 
that the Jews had invented usury, and that the jew (with a small j) 
was the evil genius who degraded our superior Christian culture, 
from which only a revolution of intellectual aristocrats could 
dislodge him. It is an extraordinary paradox that Pound’s 
^rawling, ignorant, indecent, unmelodious, seldom metrical 
Cantos, embellished with esoteric Chinese ideographs— for all I 

traced from the nearest tea-chest — and 
wuh illiterate Greek, Latin, Spanish, and Provencal snippets 
(the Italian and F rench read all right to me, but I may be mis- 
taken) are now compulsory reading in many ancient centres of 
learning. If ever one comes across a relatively simple Blake-like 
passage m the Cantos, sandwiched between direct quotations 
kom history text-books, and snarling polyglot parentheses, this 
is how It sounds. Forgive me; but we are all adults here: 

S .. ton the throne of England, s ... t on the Austrian 
sofa. 

In their soul was usura and in their minds darkness 
and blankness^ greased fat were four Georges 
Pus was in Spain, W dlington was a jew’ s pimp [small j] 
and lacked mind to know what he effected. 

Leave the Duke, go for gold! ’ 

[1^3] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 

In their souls was usura and in their hearts cowardice^ 
In their minds was stink and corruption. 

Two sores ran together^ Talleyrand stank with shanker^ 
and hell pissed up Metternich, 

Filth stank as in our day , . . 


Even Whitman’s barbaric yawp was hardly as barbaric as that. 
But remove the layers and layers of cloacinal ranting, snook- 
cocking, pseudo-professorial jargon and double-talk from 
Pound s verse, and what remains.^ Longfellow’s plump, soft, 
ill -at-ease grand-nephew remains!* 


* Mr. Gordon Wharton has recently written about Pound in The Times 
Literary Supplement that: ‘whatever total judgement one makes on his 
works, one has to admit that his whole poetic career has been dominated by 
an ambition to achieve major form.’ As an example of major writing he 
quotes Pound’s lyric: 


O Lynx, guard this orchard^ 

Keep from Demeter s furrow 
This fruit has a fire within it, 

Pomona, Pomona, 

No glass is clearer than are the globes of flame 

IVhat sea is clearer than the pomegranate body holding the flame? 

Pomona, Pomona, 

Lynx, keep watch on this orchard 
That is named Melagrana 
or the Pomegranate field 

The sea is not clearer in a^ure 
Nor the Heliads bringing light 
Here are lynxes Here are lynxes. 

Is there a sound in the forest 

of pard or of bassarid 
or crotale or of leaves moving? 

This makes little sense to me, though I am as good as the next man in seeing 
through a brick wall. I can get as far as where a lynx is improbably asked to 
keep from Demeter’s furrow a clear flaming pomegranate-Jike fruit in an 
orchard sacred to Pomona. But there the trail goes cold, despite Heliads, 
pards and bassarids 'such as a college easily supplies’ (Dr Johnson on 
Lycidas). What is the Goddess Pomona doing among pards, lynxes and 
bassarids, none of which occurred in her limited Latin territory.^ And what 
or who is crotale} Only crotalon appears in Liddell and Scott and means a 
rattle, either real or metaphorical. 



THESE BE YOUR GODS 


T. E. Lawrence wrote in 1912 to his brother Will, who had 
come under Pound’s influence: 


Pound has a very common American affectation of immense 
learning in strange things. If you can read history and Bertrand 
together you would not dream of following him. ... I think 
The Goodly Fere is by far his best thing. . . . 

Bertrand de Born was a Proven9al hero whom Pound used as 

one of his own personae^ or masks; but who deserved a better 

fate. Lawrence means that The Goodly Fere^ a rousing old-world 

Salvationist ballad about Jesus Christ, the muscular fisherman, 

is honest Longfellow: by Blind Bartimaeus out of The Wreck of 

the Hesperus. T. S. Eliot omitted it from his critical edition of 

Pound’s poems with the lame, if aristocratic, excuse that it was 
‘too well known*. 


T. S. Eliot, another American, had been a graceful writer of 
songs and conventional poems at Harvard (until he read philo- 
sophy and ceased for awhile). He came to Europe a year or two 
before the First World War and found it a more congenial 
continent than his own. Yet even so he was bored to screaming 
by tea-parties, and art-students’ chatter, and lodging-house 
society, and cocktail-bars, and London fog, and hymns in 
London churches; already he began to feel bald and old and 
useless. This reaction accounts for Prufrock (published in 1917). 
I first met Eliot in 1916: a startlingly good-looking, Italianate 
young man, with a shy, hunted look, and a reluctance (which I 
found charming) to accept the most obvious phenomenon of the 
day a world war now entering its bloodiest stage, and showing 
every sign of going on until it had killed off every man in London 
but the aged and neutrals. I was due to return to the Somme any 

day, and delighted to forget the war too in Eliot’s gently neutral 
company. 

When the Armistice delivered us all, he had no war-neurosis 
to si<^gh off, and stepped forward as a prophet of the uninhibited, 
anti-Romantic early ’twenties. In The Hippopotamus he guyed 
the Church irreverently: ^ ^ 


Flesh and blood is weak and frail^ 
Susceptible to nervous shocks 
While the T rue Church can never fnil^ 
For it is based upon a rock. . . . 

[125] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


The hippo^ s feeble steps may 
In compassing material ends^ 
While the True Church need 
To gather in its dividends. 


err 

never stir 


He was as polyglot as Pound; Greek, Latin, French, German, 
Italian, Sanscrit tags alternate in his poems, but he took decent 
care to check their accuracy, and had a far better ear for 
verse. 

Pound accepted Eliot as a disciple, or Poundling, and was 
rewarded for his blue-pencilling of The Waste Land by the 
dedication: II miglior fabbro. This celebrated poem was, I believe, 
the first to apply the current art-fashion of collage to English 
verse — collage being the technique of pasting, say, autumn 
leaves, bus-tickets, metal shavings, cigar bands, fur, playing 
cards, and artificial flowers on a sheet of paper, in order to create 
a * significant * composition. What the composition is * significant ' 
of, is never explained. Here Eliot pasted fragments of the 
Elizabethan ornate against skilfully chosen examples of the 
modern nasty (though never using words which would have 
barred him from the drawing-room); and in his notes asked the 
reader to find, despite the continual change of subject and metre, 
a connecting thread of sense. Dame Ocupacyon will not be 
pleased when she reads: 


Not only the title, but the plan and a good deal of the incidental 
symbolism of the poem were suggested by Miss Jessie L. Weston’s 
book on the Grail legend: From Ritual to Romance (Cambridge). 
Indeed, so deeply am I indebted, Miss Weston’s book will 
elucidate the difficulties of the poem much better than my notes 
can do; and I recommend it (apart from the great interest of the 
book itself) to any who think such elucidation of the poem 
worth the trouble. To another work of anthropology I am 
indebted in general, one which has influenced our generation 
profoundly; I mean The Golden Bough; I have used especially 
the two volumes Atthis Adonis Osiris. Anyone who is acquainted 
with these works will immediately recognize in the poem certain 
references to vegetation ceremonies. 


Eliot had meanwhile been encouraged by Pound to voice the 
anti-Jewish obsession: 

[126] 



THESE BE YOUR GODS 


My house is a decayed house 

And the jew [small j] squats on the window silly the 
ownefy 

Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp 

Blistered in Brusselsy patched and peeled in London, , , . 

(Eliot himself, though afterwards patched and peeled in London, 
was not spawned, but decently begotten by a God-fearing 
Christian father.) And again, in the Venice poem, we find: 

The rats are underneath the piles 

The jew [small j] is underneath the lot. 

Money in furs. The boatman smiles, , . , 

(Eliot*s family kept clear of the fur trade: machinery was more 
respectable.) 

Well, the libertarian movement of the ’twenties got bogged, 
as the text-books explain, in the political ’thirties; and before 
these were over, Eliot who, unlike Pound, had no grudge against 
the world, but only a shyness of it, made his peace with the 
Hippopotamus and was well on his way to Rydal Mount. 
Instead of The Ecclesiastical Sonnets he wrote Murder in the 
Cathedraly and The Rock — the Rock against which he had 
stubbed a toe — in aid of ecclesiastical charities: 


With Senecay with Ciceroy 

With cockney fun he makes amends; 
The cheerful clerics griny not sloWy 
To gather in fresh dividends. 


He became a churchwarden, edited Kipling, and recanted his 
toer aspersions on Milton. Kathleen Nott has wickedly said: 

He reminds me of a dignified landlady who, without a word 
retrieves the tribal ornaments from the cupboard where the 

3nd puts them back on the mantelpiece.’ 
bliot, being an ex-banker and less naive in his economics 
resisted Pound’s anti-usury fixation — for once he was penny- 
wise, not Pound-foolish — and matured into a rugged, if retirine 
businessman. Yet he had once been, however briefi;, a poet-^ 
1 reter to the haunting blank verse passages in The Waste Land 

[127] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 

— and if he found the demands of the Goddess too severe, who 
can blame him? I shall always be grateful to Eliot for having 
been the only publisher in London with the courage to print my 
long White Goddess, And his rejection of The Naiarene Gospel 
Restored was charming: he explained that he ‘would have pub- 
lished it if it had been more drily written/ And I admire Eliot’s 
courageous loyalty to old friends in trouble; he was the prime 
mover in a protest against the unceremonious treatment accorded 
to U.S. Traitor Pound when the G.I/s caught up with him in 
Italy at the end of the War. Eliot asked me to sign, but I make 
it a rule not to interfere with the domestic affairs of another 
nation. 

The Four Quartets^ which had appeared in the middle of the 
War, correspond with Wordsworth’s River Duddon volume, in 
so far as they were written to reassure Eliot’s public that he still 
had a pen in his hand: 

O dark dark dark, // They all go into the dark , , , 

The captains^ merchant bankers,^ // eminent men of letters , , . 

Distinguished civil servants ^ // chairmen of many com- 
mittees . . . 

And dark the Sun and Moon^ // and the Almanach de Gotha 

And the Stock Exchange Gaiette^ // the Directory of 
Directors ,, 

So here I am^ in the middle // way, having had twenty 
years — 

Twenty years largely wasted^ // the years ofY^nive deux 
guerres — 

Trying to learn to use words ^ // and every attempt . , , 

Is a new beginnings jj a raid on the inarticulate 

With shabby equipment // always deteriorating , , , 

I suppose he mentions the two Wars because the unusual 
passions they aroused provoked him to write on wholly personal 
subjects. But why is he complaining? Who forced him, during 
the Battle of the Somme, to attend London tea-parties presided 
over by boring hostesses? Or, in after years, to become a 
chairman of many committees, and figure in The Directory of 
Directors^ instead of serving the Muse? Does he require our 

[128] 



THESE BE YOUR GODS 


commiseration because his shabby equipment is always deterior- 
ating and because he wasted twenty years in publishing the books 
of others instead of writing his own? In the passages I quote he 
is true to a boyhood’s admiration for Longfellow’s Evangeline] 
but has decided that Longfellow’s smooth hexameter coach- 
wheels run just a bit too tediously, he shortens and sufflaminates 
them to suit the present bumpy age. For my part, I wish that 
he had stopped at The Hollow Men^ his honest and (indeed) 
heart-breaking declaration of poetic bankruptcy, to the approved 
Receiver of poetic bankruptcy, the Hippopotamus Church. 


We are the hollow men 
We are the stuffed men 
Leaning together 

Headpiece filled with straw, AlasI 

Our dried voices^ when 
W z whisper together 
Are quiet and meaningless 
As wind in dry grass 
Or rats' feet over broken glass 
In our dry cellar 

Shape without form^ shade without colour^ 
Paralysed force gesture without motion^ 

For Thine is the Kingdom . , . 
Life is very long . . . 

For Thine is the Kingdom . . . 


Ehot s introduction to Pound’s Poems reveals that both based 
their a-metncal practices on the example of Laforgue. But he 
oes not explain the need. That Laforgue tried to wriggle out 
of the strait-jacket of the French Classical alexandrine seems 
irrelevant to the case; English has worn no strait-jacket since the 
Age ot Obsequiousness, and if strait-jackets exist only to be 
wriggled out of, why did both Pound and Eliot set such immense 
T.Z admiration for whom Eliot (in this introduction) 

two hearts, the poetic one, has died and been given a separate 

[129] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 

funeral, in Jewish style (capital J) he continues to visit the grave 
wistfully, and lay flowers on it. 

I have never met W. H. Auden — and, so far as I recall, have 
never written to him more than once. During 1928-9 I was 
printing books by hand, and he subscribed to them. I had to 
suggest that the half-guinea he paid for Laura Riding’s Love as 
Love^ Death as Deaths gave him no right to borrow half lines 
and whole lines from them for insertion in his own verse. 

LAURA RIDING; The Standing stUlnesSy 

The from foot-to-foot . . . 

Is no real fever . . . 

W. H. AUDEN: This gracious greetings 

‘ Good day. Good luck* y 
Is no real meeting . . . 

LAURA riding: ‘ YesT to you is in the same breath 

'No/ no/* to Death, 

But such love turns . . . etc. 

After we have fictitiousness 
Of our excess y 
All will be as before 
W z shall sayy love is no more 

Them wakingy smilingy 

Forcing out ‘ Good morning y * 

Andy were it morCy it were 
Fictiousness or nothing, 

W. H. AUDEN: From yes to nOy 

For no is not lovej no is no y 

And saying yes 

Turns love into success . . . 

And were this ally love were 
But cheek to cheek 
And dear to dear. 

He is as synthetic as Milton, who borrowed his inspiration in 
Paradise Lost from Browne, the two Fletchers, Davies, Silvester 
and a host of others. Like Tennyson (whom he has admiringly 
edited), Auden went to Spain in warlike ardour by a comrade s 

[130] 



THESE BE YOUR GODS 


side; like Tennyson he saw no fighting. But, unlike Tennyson, 
he played plenty of ping-pong in a hotel at Sitges. Just before 
World War II he emigrated to the United States, subsequently 
becoming a U.S. citizen, and there developed his real talent, 
which is for light verse. His Phi Beta Kappa poem (Harvard, 
1946) is a tour de force: 

Ares at last has quit the fields 
The bloodstains on the bushes yield 
To seeping showers^ 

And in their convalescent state 
The fractured towns associate 
With summer flowers. 

Encamped upon the college plain 
Raw veterans already train 
As freshman forces; 

Instructors with sarcastic tongue 
Shepherd the battle-weary young 
Through basic courses. 

Among bewildering appliances 
For mastering the arts and sciences 
They stroll and run^ 

And nerves that never flinched at slaughter 
Are shot to pieces by the shorter 
Poems of Donne, , , . 


The cockney rhyme of slaughter and shorter expresses his 
contempt of the young fools who allowed themselves to get 
caught in the War. There are, by the way, no fighting nien 
among the idols— no successors to Ben Jonson who once ‘killed 
his man in the sight of both armies’; which is paradoxical in an 
age that has sentenced every second man to ordeal by battle. 
Auden’s is now the prescribed period style of the ’fifties, com- 
pounded of all the personal styles available; but he no loneer 
borrows whole lines, as for his first volumes, or even half-lii^s 
It IS a word here, a rhythm there, a rhetorical trope, a simile an 
ingenious rhyme, a classical reference, a metrical arrangement. 
Auden s zmc-bnght influence is even stronger than Yeats’s, 


THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 

Pound s, or Eliot’s. He has been saluted as the Picasso of con- 
temporary English poetry; and, indeed, if Auden’s verse makes 
me feel uncomfortable so, I confess, does a Picasso design, 
however firmly drawn, when I recognize the source, or sources, 
of his inspiration — a fourteenth-century Spanish plate, a wooden 
mask from the Congo, a Hittite seal, a Baffinland Eskimo ivory, 
an Estruscan tomb painting, a Carthaginian clay figure, an Aztec 
calendar illustration. ‘Ah, yes,’ says his admirers, ‘these ignorant 
savages anticipated him.’ 

So we come to the last of the modern idols: Dylan Thomas. 
At what interval after the death of a young poet is it decent to 
tell the truth about him.^ Despite the splendid orations spoken 
at his grave, more eulogistic than any poet has earned since 
Byron’s death at Missolonghi, was Thomas either a master-poet 
or a ‘great Christian gentleman*.^ He himself never pretended 
to be anything more than a young dog — witty, naughty, charm- 
ing, irresponsible, and impenitent. But he did give his radio- 
audience what they wanted. 

Thomas had all the rich musical eloquence of a South Welsh- 
man. Did anyone ever hear a Welsh choir, either in a concert 
hall, or a chapel, or when fortuitously assembled in a motor-bus 
or railway carriage, sing out of tune.^ It is a Welsh national 
characteristic to sing in tune and be eloquent: just as the Egyptain 
fellah lays a tennis-court dead flat without the aid of a spirit- 
level, or the old Majorcan shepherd never misses his mark with 
a sling-stone. But the Welshman seldom really cares what the 
tune is, whether Marchog Jesu^ or Saspan Fach^ or Roll out the 
Barrel^ so long as he can sing it as a part-song. 

Dylan Thomas was drunk with melody, and what the words 
were he cared not. He was eloquent, and what cause he was 
pleading, he cared not. He had a rich voice, could put on the hwyl 
like any Rev. John Jones, B.A., Bangor, albeit in English as spoken 
in Langham Place; and, when I listened to him broadcasting, I had 
to keep a tight hold of myself to avoid being seduced. As when 
once, in 1916, I listened to a war speech given by Lloyd George 
to the Honourable Society of Cymrodorion. 

I never met Thomas; but when he was sixteen, he sent me 
from Swansea a batch of his early poems. I wrote back that they 
were irreproachable, but that he would eventually learn to dislike 
them. I forget what more I said; but I remember thinking that 

[13^] 



THESE BE YOUR GODS 


whereas musical prodigies like Mozart, or mathematical prodi- 
gies like William Rowan Hamilton, are not uncommon (and, 
when they grow up, continue happily as they began), poetic 
prodigies are monstrous and ill-omened. Young poets stumble 
and make a thousand clumsy errors, and though one may hope 
or guess that they will be something in the end, there is only 
promise, not performance. A sense of poetic protocol develops 
very slowly indeed. (The sole exceptions are such inspired 
young women poets as Juana de Asbaje, or Christina Rossetti; 
but a girl is often a woman when her elder brother is still a child.) 
Even experts would have been deceived by the virtuosity of 
Dylan Thomas’s conventional, and wholly artificial, early poems. 

In order to conceal this defect in sincerity, he learned to 
introduce a distractive element. He kept musical control of the 
reader without troubling about the sense. I do not mean that he 
aimed deliberately off-target, as the later Yeats did. Thomas 
seems to have decided that there was no need to aim at all, so 
long as the explosion sounded loud enough. The fumes of 
cordite would drift across the target and a confederate in the 
butts would signal bull after bull. Nevertheless, as in double- 
talk, a central thread of something like sense makes the incrus- 
tations of nonsense more acceptable. Listeners, as opposed to 
readers, are easily convinced, in such cases, that they are obtuse 
and slow to follow the workings of the interlocutor’s mind, 
especially when the musical content is so rich. But professionally- 
minded English poets ban double-talk, except in satire, and insist 
that every poem must make prose sense as well as poetic sense 
on one or more levels. The common report that most of 
Thomas’s poems came out of the beer barrel cannot be accepted. 
It is tme that he drank a great deal of beer, and that beer is a 
splendid drink before one takes one’s place in a male voice 
choir; but the poems show every sign of an alert and sober 
mtelligence. The following typical stanza is nonsense, but 

Dylan’s golden voice could persuade his listeners that he was 
divulging ineffable secrets: 


If my head hurt a hair's foot 

Pack hack the downed hone. If the unpricked hall of my 
hreath 

Bump on a spout let the huhhles jump out. 

[133] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


Sooner drop with the worm of the ropes round my throat 
Than bully ill love in the clouted scene. * 

Stephen Spender^ who often prognosticates next year’s poetic 
skirt-length or waist-line long before the autumn collections, 
wrote of Thomas in 1946: 

He is a poet who commands the admiration of all con- 
temporary poets. He has influenced a number of writers who 
see in him an alternative to the intellectual [j/c] writing of Auden. 
Of the poets under forty-five, he is perhaps the only one capable 
of exercising a literary influence as great as that of Auden. 

Yeats, Pound, Eliot, Auden, and Thomas are credited with 
having delivered English poetry from the shackles of the past. 

*When I delivered this lecture, I offered a £^1 note to anyone who could 
make sense of these lines. The ingenious Mr M. J. C. Hodgart of Pembroke, 
a member of the Cambridge English Faculty, has since come forward to 
claim the award. He suggests that the child about to be born is here address- 
ing his mother. The child cries out that if lie is to cause her any pain by his 
birth, let him not be born at all. ‘ If I were to hurt so much as a hair of your 
head in process of birth push my downy, but bony, head back into the 
womb.* . . . Birth (Mr Hodgart adds) is represented here as a violent 
movement like a bouncing ball; and the child’s breath before birth is com- 
pared to an unpricked bubble. Therefore; Tf even this soft bubble of 
breath should hurt you by bouncing on your spouting blood, prick it and 
let my life run out in bubbles.’ And; T would sooner be born hanged with 
my navel-string coiled around my throat than bully you when I appear 
on a scene made wretched by baby-clouts, or clouts on the head.’ 

There are flaws in this argument. The hair’s foot, misleadingly identical 
in sound to hare s foot, is not a hair’s root. Also, the physical situation is 
blurred by the apparent contact of the baby’s downy head with the mother’s 
hairy one, and by the description of the navel-string as ‘the worm of the 
ropes’ — why ‘ropes’ in the plural.^ And by the metaphor of an unpunctured 
ball bouncing on the top of a spout — as in pleasure fountains; how the bubble 
of breath could bounce on the flow of lochial blood is not easy to see (blood 
is not mentioned in the poem). And why should the unpricked bubble 
become ‘bubbles’.^ And is the infant experienced or ignorant.^ If ignorant, 
how can it anticipate baby-clouts, and balls bouncing on fountains.^ If 
experienced, how can it make so absurd a suggestion as that the mother 
should push its head back again to relieve her labour pains.^ And if it is so 
considerate and saintly as Mr Hodgart suggests, why should it ever turn 

bully.^ 

I have a conscience about paying my debts, but though Mr Hodgart may 
have identified the thin thread of sense on which the enormous and disgusting 
hyperboles of the child’s address are strung, this is not enough: the five lines 
taken as a whole remain nonsensical. 



THESE BE YOUR GODS 


And the people said: ‘These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought 
thee up out of the land of Egypt ! ’ 

Need I also dwell on the lesser idols now slowly mouldering: 
on sick, muddle-headed, sex-mad D. H. Lawrence who wrote 
sketches for poems, but nothing more; on poor, tortured Gerard 
Manley Hopkins? 

Despite the great spate of commercial jazz, there has always 
been a small, clear stream of living jazz music; despite the great 
outpouring of abstract or semi-abstract art (the more abstract, 
the more imitative and academic) there has likewise been a thin 
trickle of admirable painting and sculpture. The same is true 
of poetry. To take only the United States: Robert Frost, E. E. 
Cummings, John Crowe Ransom, Laura Riding, have all written 
living poems in their time. I refrain from invidiously singling 
out their English counterparts still alive, who are no fewer in 
number. But I do find it remarkable that the extraordinary five 
years of Siegfried Sassoon’s poetic efflorescence (1917— 21) 
should be utterly forgotten now. For the rest it will be enough 
to say that William Davies, though at times his simplicity 
degenerated into artfulness, put his near-contemporary Yeats 
to shame; and that Norman Cameron, who died last year within 
a month or two of Thomas, and worked in the same office for a 
while, was indisputably the truer poet; and that so was Alun 
Lewis, killed during the Second World War. 

This IS Alun Lewis writing from the Welch Regiment in 
Burma to his Muse in Wales: 

. . . My longing is more and more for one thing only, integrity, 
and I discount the other qualities in people ruthlessly if they lack 
that fundamental sincerity and wholeness. 

... And although Pm more engrossed with the single poetic 
theme of Life and Death, for there doesn't seem to be any 
question more directly relevant than this one, of what survives 
of all the beloved, I find myself quite unable to express at once 
the passion of Love, die coldness of Death (Death is cold), or 
the fire that beats against resignation, ‘acceptance'. Acceptance 
seems so spiritless, protest so vain. In between the two I live. 

With this quotation, I make my bow, and thank you for your 

continued patience. If, in the course of these lectures, I have 

said anything out of order, pray forgive me doubly; I am no 
longer a stranger here. 

[135] 




VARIOUS ESSAYS 
ON POETRY 




MOTHER GOOSE’S LOST GOSLINGS 


M other goose is famous for her nursery rhymes, but not 
many of them were composed as such. Sometimes what 
appears to be nonsense is no more than long out-of-date 
topical satire; sometimes the nonsense element has been added 
later, either because the original words were garbled or forgotten, 
or because their meaning had to be suppressed for political or 
moral reasons. Two or three hundred years of oral tradition in 

the nursery had played havoc with the texts before Haliwell 
collected and printed them in 1846. 

Deliberately nonsensical rhymes for children first appeared 
in the eighteenth century, as a reaction against the over-decorous 
verse of the over-sane Augustan Age, and even these were a 
fairly restrained sort of nonsense, based on puns and manifest 
self-contradiction. It was not until the time of Edward Lear 
jj Carroll that nonsense of brilliant inconsequence 
budded with newly invented words came to be composed. 
1 ypical of the eighteenth century is: 


There was a man of London Town 
And he was wondrous wise: 

He jumped into a quickset hedge 
And scratched out both his eyes. 
But when he saw his eyes were outy 
With all his might and main 
He jumped into another bush 
And scratched them in again. 


The metre supplies the date. Goldsmith 
on Madam Mary Blaize. In her youth, 

[139] 


used it in his satire 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


Her love was sought^ I do aver^ 

By twenty beaux or more^ 

The King himself has followed her — 

When she has walked before. 

Also typically eighteenth-century in their restraint are: 

The man of the wilderness asked of me: 

'How many strawberries grow in the seal' 

I answered him as I thought good: 

'As many red herrings as grow in the woodl 

and: 


On Paul's Cathedral grows a tree 
As full of apples as can be. 

The little boys of London Town^ 

They come with hooks to pull them down; 

Then they run from hedge to hedge 
Until they come to London Bridge. 

But these must be distinguished from such mildly satiric 
rhymes as The Grand Old Duke of York and Little Jack Horner. 

The Grand Old Duke of York^ 

He had ten thousand men. 

He marched them up to the top of the hill 
And he marched them down again. 

And when they were up^ they were upy 

And when they were down^ they were down^ 

And when they were only half-way up 
They were neither up nor down. 

H.R.H. Frederick Augustus, Duke of York — and incidentally 
Bishop of Osnaburg since infancy — commanded the British 
Army in Flanders successfully enough from 1793 to i 795 > 
though he failed in the Helder expedition of 1799 ? 
altogether his fault. In 1809 he was obliged by the Whig Opposi- 
tion to resign his appointment as Commander-in-Chief of the 

[140] 



MOTHER goose's LOST GOSLINGS 

Forces because his mistress, the notorious Mary Anne Clarke, 
had taken bribes to secure promotion for Army Officers. The 
rhyme is an undeserved Whig libel on his military capacity. It 
may have been composed to offset the thanks voted him by both 
Houses of Parliament at the conclusion of the Napoleonic 
Wars. 

A companion piece has survived only in two very nonsensical 
versions. It runs: 

King William was King Jameses son 
And many a gallant race did run^ 

And on his breast he carried a star 
And that's the way to the pkkle-jar/ 

or — I owe this one to Miss Alice R. Benson, who recorded it in 
Virginia: 


King William was King James's son 
By the royal race he run: 

Upon his breast he wore a star 

That points the way to the Governor s door. 

Go choose your east^ go choose your west. 

Go choose the one that you love best; 

And if she will not take your part. 

Go choose another with all your heart. 

Down on this carpet you must kneel. 

As sure as the grass grows in the field. 

The star and the name William suggest the Sailor King William 
IV, sonietimes called ‘King Tarry-Breeks’, who was King 
ueorge 111 s son and famed for his amours and drinking. The 
last line of the first version has originally, I think, been bor- 
rowed from Hogg’s: ‘That’s the way for Billy and me.’ The 
mes which explain ‘many a gallant race’ seem to have been 
variously censored by parents or nurses; but the Virginian 

version develops the love interest in the second stanza. The 
onginal may have run: 

[141] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


Prince William was King George's son 
And many a gallant race did run. 

For on his breast he carried a star — 

That was the way of Billy the Tar, 

For all the ladies upon the shore 
It shone the way to the Governor' s door^ 

And down on the carpet they must kneel 
As sure as the grass grows in the field. 

Go sail to east^ go sail to westy 
Go choose the lass that you love besty 
And if she will not play the party 
Go choose another with all your heart. 

Little Jack Horner has been quoted as another Whig satire, 
with ‘Jack’ substituted for ‘Frank’; 

Little Jack Horner 
Sat in a corner 

Eating his Christmas pie. 

He put in his thumb 
And pulled out a plum 

And said: ‘ What a good boy am IT 

Francis Horner, Scottish economist and member of Parliament 
during the Napoleonic Wars, was one of the few thoroughly 
honest statesmen of his day; he even refused a Treasury secretary- 
ship in i8ii because he could not afford to live on the salary. 
In i8io he had been secretary to the Parliamentary Committee 
which investigated inflation and persuaded the House to check 
the issue of paper-currency unsupported by bullion. Horner 
exercised a moral as well as an intellectual influence on his fellow- 
members, which galled the Whig Opposition. A ‘plum’ in the 
slang of the time was /^ioo,ooo; it appeared even in such sober 
reports as; ‘The revenue is about plum, to be increased by 
funding.’ But here critical caution is needed. Though the 
Whigs may have mischievously applied the rhyme to Horner, 
as an accusation that he had secretly enriched himself by bribes 
from the City, while protesting his incorruptibility, it was already 
at least a century old. Henry Carey quotes it in his Namby 

[142] 



MOTHER goose’s LOST GOSLINGS 

Pamby satire on Ambrose Phillips in 1725, The Wiltshire 
Horners were a rich family who had profited from Henry VIIPs 
dissolution of the monasteries, and seem to have been notorious 
for their self-righteousness.* 

The nearest to deliberate nonsense written in the seventeenth 
century had been the Bedlamite verse put in the mouth of ‘ Poor 
Tom’ or his sweetheart ‘Merry Mad Maudlen’; but this was no 
more than wild fancy, not in the least Jabberwocky, nor even 
self-contradictory in the eighteenth-century style. 

Mad Maudlen’s song: 

My staff hath murdered GyantSy 
My Bag a long Knife carries 
To cut Mince-pyes from Childrens thighs 
With which I feast the Fairies^ 

is of the same order of extravagance as the contemporary dancing 


If all the world were paper 
If all the seas were inky 
If all the trees were bread and cheese y 
What would we do for drink? 

If all the vessels ran-a 

And none hut had a cracky 
If Spanish apes ate all the grapes 
What would we do for sack? 

(originally 

a Rabbinic formula) points to the Inns of Court as the place 

of composition; the law-students were weary of quill work and 
wanted to drink and dance. 

Another fanciful rhyme, of about the same date, is: 

Four and twenty tailors 
W znt to catch a snaily 
Even the bravest of them 
Durst not touch her tail — 

Peter and Iona Opie, authors of the Oxford Dictionary of 
r putting me right on this point. 

[143] 


* I have to thank 
Kursery Rhymesy fo 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


She Stuck out her horns 
Like a little Kyloe cow, 

Run^ tailors^ run 

Or she ll get you all ere now. 

This is a simple popular satire on the supposed cowardice of 
tailors; Kyloe lies in Northumberland. As for: 

There were three cooks of Colnbrook, 

And they fell out with our cook: 

It was but for a pudding he took 

From those three cooks of Colnbrook — 

I should date this to the Civil Wars. Colnbrook in Buckingham- 
shire was far too small a place to have supported so many cooks 
except for a week or two in November 1642; then the Royalist 
Army encamped there while Charles I negotiated with Parlia- 
ment, The tune is a bugle-call, which suggests that the cooks 
were regimental ones stealing from one another in the old Army 
tradition. It is perhaps the earliest of a long series, mostly mid- 
Victorian, which now includes the officers* mess-call: 

Officers* wives have puddings and pies^ 

But soldiers* wives have skilly; 

the no-parade call: 

Hooray^ hooray ^ hooray ^ 

There's no parade today! 

The Colonel's got a belly ache 
And the Adjutant's gone away. 

and the post-call, which ends: 

A postcard from your mother-in-law 
And a letter from Lousy Lou, 

The jingle about Little Miss Muffet and the spider can safely 
be dated to the second half of the seventeenth century. One 
Dr Muffet wrote the treatise A Theatre of Insects which, in 

[144] 



MOTHER goose’s LOST GOSLINGS 

was bound up with the Rev. E. Topsell’s History of Four-footed 
Beasts and Serpents. In it MufFet eulogized the Spider as follows: 

The skin of it is so soft, smooth, polished and neat that she 
precedes the softest skin’d Mayds and the daintiest and most 
beautiful Strumpets. She hath fingers that the most gallant 
Virgins desire to have theirs like them, long, slender, round, of 
exact feel, that there is no man, nor any creature, that can com- 
pare with her. 

Dr Muffet (as W. S. Bristowe, the arachnologist, has pointed out) 

had a daughter named Patience who probably did not share her 

father’s entomological enthusiasms; but the occasion of the 

rhyme may have been the comical incident recorded in Doctor 

Muffet’s diary, when a swarm of wasps spoilt his family picnic 
in Epping Forest. 

Another satiric rhyme: 

I do not like thee^ Dr Fell, 

The reason why I cannot tell^ 

But this I know^ I know full well^ 

I do not like thee^ Dr Fell, 

IS known to have been written in 1678 by Thomas Brown of 

v^hrist Church, Oxford. Brown merely translated Martial’s 
epigram: 


Non amo te^ Sabidi^ nec possum dicere quare . . . 

Ranging Sabidius’s name to that of Dr Fell, then Bishop of 
Oxford and the energetic Dean of Brown’s own College. Dr 
^ ell IS best remembered now as the designer of the Fell type 

one of the best English founts, and for having, albeit reluctantly’ 
expelled the philosopher Locke from Oxford. 

The rhyme Goosey-goosey-gander, made nonsensical only by 
Its corruptions, was coined, I suspect, at the same mint. That its 
first mention in print is 1816 signifies nothing; ‘chamber’ had 

® ^ l^ondred years. Though 

poem in okeltomc verse written about 1535- 

[M5] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


Doctor Bullatus 

Will brabble and prate thus: 

How Doctor Pomander 
As wise as a gander 
W ots not where to wander y 

Goosey-goosey-gander should be read as a mocking chorus sung 
in 1689 by anti-Papal undergraduates to bait the Rev. Henry 
Gandy, an Oxford University Proctor who had remained loyal 
to the deposed King James 11 . ‘Goosey*, apparently suggested 
by ‘Gandy*, had meant ‘stupid’ since the time of Chaucer. 
After holding out for a year, Gandy was deprived of his Oriel 
fellowship for refusing to take the oath of allegiance to William 
III. (In 1716 he became one of the Rev. Jeremy Collier’s private 
creation of non-juror Jacobite bishops.) The ‘old man who 
would not say his prayers* must be Gandy himself, and the 
prayers, those that he refused to offer for King William and 
Queen Mary; but since he was no more than forty at the time 
of his deprivation ‘old man* is perhaps a nursery simplification 
of ‘proctor*, which makes a pleasant alliteration with ‘prayers’. 
For ‘my Lady* we should read ‘thy Lady*. It is not clear, 
however, whether he is here accused of intrigue — if he had a 
powerful patroness; or of immorality — Oxford fellows were not 
allowed to marry and usually kept mistresses in disreputable 
St Ebbe’s; or of secret Romanizing — if ‘thy Lady* refers to the 
Virgin Mary. Probably the charge is immorality, since in those 
days a gander meant a lecherous fellow and the ‘gander-month* 
was the month of a woman’s lying-in when the husband con- 
sidered himself justified in illicit love-making. It is the sort of 
charge that undergraduates would delight in bringing against 
their proctor whose main business it was to keep them out of 
taverns and brothels. On the other hand, ‘thy Lady’s chamber* 
may be St Mary’s Hall, then an undergraduate lodging house 
adjoining Oriel, now the ‘Stimmery Quadrangle* of the College 
and adorned with Cecil Rhodes* statue. The original perhaps ran: 

Gandy y Goosey-Gander y 
Whither dost thou wander? 

Upstairsy or downstairsy 

Or in thy Lady's chamber? 

[146] 



MOTHER goose’s LOST GOSLINGS 

If e’er we catch a proctor 

That will not say his prayers^ 
zll take him by his long legs 
And fling him downstairs. 

The Lion and the Unicorn can be dated by its metre to half a 

century earlier, and goes to the popular ballad-tune of Cuckolds 
all a-row. 


The Lion and the Unicorn 
Were fighting for the Crown; 
The Lion beat the Unicorn 
All round the town — 

Some gave them white breads 
Some gave them brown ^ 

Some gave them good plum cake 
And drummed them out of town. 


Commentators have hitherto been content to point out that the 
Lion and the Unicorn, the supporters of the Royal Arms of 
England and Scotland, are turned rampant towards each other 
as if contending for the Crown. But the Lion heraldically repre- 
sents England; and the Unicom, Scotland; and these beasts did 
fight fiercely for the Crown after the execution of Charles I in 
^49. What happened was that the Scots then proclaimed 
Charles II as King not only of Scotland but of England, though 
England was now a Commonwealth. \l^hen Cromwell’s hands 
were free of other business he marched against Charles and beat 
him at Dunbar on September 3, 1650. But the victory did not 
prove decisive: in the New Year Charles was crowned at Scone 
^d in April moved south at the head of another Scottish army! 
On September 3, 1651, Cromwell met him again at Worcester 
and It ys at this town that the Lion beat the Unicorn so un- 
mercifully, Charles fled in disguise to the Continent, and his 
Restoration nine years later doubtless accounts for the non- 
sensica way in which the ballad now ends. I amend it as follows 
remembenng the pride of the New Model Army in their buff- 
colomred uniforms and their scorn of the gay Highland 

[147] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


The Lion and the Unicom 
W^ere fighting for the Crown; 
The Lion met the Unicorn 
Nigh Worcester Town — 

One Clad in Hyland Plaid^ 

One Clad in Brown — 

Roll Prince Charlie in the Mire 
And Drub him out of TownJ 


The metre of: 

Harky hark^ the dogs do bark 

The beggars are coming to Town; 

Some in rags and some in jags 
And some in a velvet gown^ 

also points to seventeenth-century England. Here again there is 
no nonsense, only satire. At the Restoration, survivors of ruined 
Cavalier families swarmed to Court to petition rewards for their 
loyalty and compensation for their losses; some of them almost 
in rags. With them, however, came many petitioners who had 
kept on good terms with Cromwell and were as well off as 
before the Civil Wars, which accounts for the ‘velvet gown . 
It is from this rhyme that the last four lines of the familiar 
version of The Lion and the Unicorn seem to have been bor- 
rowed, to replace the merciless Roundhead ones; but further 
softened by the substitution of ‘good plum cake’ for a good 
horse- whip’. 

There is no mystery about how these political and topical 
rhymes came to be accepted among Mother Goose’s goslings. 
Nursemaids and parents will sing the first thing that comes into 
their heads, to keep children amused or send them to sleep. 
I remember my old nurse, about the year 1898, crooning to the 

tune of Quibbs was a Quakers 

Our dear little Bobby ^ 

Our wide-awake Bobby ^ 

Our dear little Bobby^ 

Has turned out the Whigs. 

[148] 



MOTHER goose’s LOST GOSLINGS 

She must have been in her ’teens when Sir Robert Peel, who had 
founded the Conservative Party in 1831, was returned to power 
ten years later amid great popular enthusiasm. The particular 
Whigs, celebrated in the song, whom he turned out were the 
Whig Ladies of the Bedchamber; he considered them to have 
an injurious effect on young Queen Victoria’s politics. But I 
knew nothing of this at the time. And when my married daughter 
in New Zealand croons to her children as she baths them: 

Whiter than the snow^ 

Whiter than the snow/ 

W ash me in the water 

Where you washed your dirty daughter 

And I shall be whiter than the snow, 

they are certainly unaware that this is a parody of a Salvation 
Army hymn which I picked up in the trenches in World War I 
and used to sing to their mother on similar occasions. The fifth 
line is really: 


Where the Lamb was led to slaughter. 

Ymkee Doodle entered the English nursery at the conclusion 

of the American War of Independence. It had long been used 

to sing Revolutionary children to sleep, being almost the only 

song that the American Army knew. But the English had a 

scurrilous parody, composed by the unfortunate Major Andre 

whom Washington hanged as a spy, and it was this that they 
brought back to Europe with them. ^ 

Several ‘Mother Goose’ rhymes of Northern origin have been 
a tered for the benefit of Southern children who would not have 
understood them otherwise. For example, the painstakingly 


There was a man and he had naughty 
Yet robbers came to rob him. 

He climbed up to a chimney pot 

And then they thought they had him . . . 

[M9] 


THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


returned to the late eighteenth-century Yorkshire 

There was a man and he had nowt^ 

Yet robbers came to rob him. 

He climbed up by a gutter-spout 

And there they thowt to nob him, , , . 

the famous rhyme: 

How many miles to Babylont 
Threescore miles and ten! 

Can I get there by candle light? 

Yes^ and back again. 

If your feet be nimble and light 
You can get there by candlelight. 

This is revealed as eighteenth-century Scottish — and incidentally 
robbed of all its magic — when one recognizes Babylon as Baby 
Land^ and restores the whimsical comment on the threescore and 
ten years which separate childhood from second childhood. 

Hoo mony miles tae Babby Lond? 

Three scair miles an ten. 

Sail I win yon by condle-licht? 

Ay^ and hame agen. 

Gin your feet be nimble and licht 
Ye sail be hame before the nicht. 

Once the original date and provenience have been fixed for a 
lost poem that has fallen into the rag-bag of nonsense, and the 
text has been amended accordingly, the strangest things may 
shine out. For example: 

Two grey kits and the grey kits^ mother 
All went over the bridge together. 

The bridge broke down and they all fell in 
* The rats go with you!' says Tom Boleyn, 

The rhymes ‘mother’ and ‘together’ point to a Scottish or 
Northern English origin, though the poem has survived only 

[150] 


can easily be 
original: 


Then there is 



MOTHER goose’s LOST GOSLINGS 


in the United States. Tom Boleyn, or Tomalyn, is easily recog- 
nized as Thom o’ Lin or Tomalyn, a mysterious popular hero 
who has given his name to a country dance, first recorded in 
1549; and is shown in the ballad of Young Tam Lin^ first recorded 
in 15583 to have been connected with the British witch cult. 
Xhe grey kits and their mother were witches — two witches and 
their queen, or a witch and her familiars. Grey or ‘brinded’ was 
the favourite colour of witch cats, as Shakespeare mentions in 
Macbeth and King Lear. ‘The rats’ seems to be a worn-down 
form of ‘Auld Scratch’, or ‘Auld Scrat’, the Devil. Witches 


were made powerless by being immersed in running water. So 
the rhyme is a sixteenth- or seventeenth-century charm against 
witches; 


Twa grey kits and the grey kits' midder 
A' went ower the brigg togidder. 

The brigg brak doon and they tummelled in. 

'‘Auld Scrat gae wi ye!' says Tam o' Lin. 

Then again: 

Grey goose and gander^ 

Waft your wings together 

And carry the good king's daughter 

Over the one-strand river. 

In a recent London newspaper correspondence about its sense, 

the only solution offered was that strand did not mean thready 

but shore^ and that the ‘one-strand river’ was the ocean. This 

was correct up to a point, but did not explain either the geese or 

the king’s daughter, which were dismissed as charming fancies. 

The metre cannot be later than the middle sixteenth century 

and, to judge by the rhymes ‘together’ and ‘river’, the poem 

comes from Scotland or the Scottish Border. The recovery of 

the original text is perhaps best shown in three stages of emenda- 
tion. 


FIRST stage: Grey goose and gander 

Waft your wings togidder^ 

And carry the gude King's dochter 
Owre the one-strand river. 

[151] 


L 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 

No: in the ballad-poetry of Scotland and the Border gander 
would never have rhymed with dochter^ also gander was usually 
spelt ganer. Daughter has evidently been suggested by the ‘King 
of Spain s daughter in another of Mother Goose*s rhymes, or 
by the ‘King’s daughter of Norraway’ in the Ballad of Sir 
Patrick Spens, The rhyme needed is banner^ or boner as it was 
then spelt. 


SECOND stage: 


Grey goose and goner ^ 

W if t your wings togidder 
And carry the gude King* s boner 
Owre the one-strand river. 


No: waft means ‘blow gently’ and is likely to be a Southern 
English modification of the vigorous Northern wap^ which is 
what wild geese in flight do with their wings. And the heavy 
alliteration of the other lines is missing in the third, which 
suggests that carry has been substituted for bear ye. But why 
should wild geese in their summer flight across the cold northern 
ocean to their breeding grounds in the Arctic Circle, or near it, 
be asked to carry a King’s banner.^ 

Surely, because a banner goes ahead of the king’s army, and 
because the wild geese in British folklore are the Cwm Annwruy 
or Hounds of Hell, a ghostly pack used by the Wild Hunter — 
Arawn, Bran (hence the names * Brant-gpose* and, by meta- 
thesis, ‘^(3r«acle-goose’), Herne, Gwyn, Gabriel, or what you 
will — when he conducts the souls of kings and heroes (and, in 
later popular tradition, the souls of unbaptized children or 
suicides or excommunicated heretics) to the pre-Christian Other- 
world at the back of the North Wind. In Scotland he was known 
as Arthur, or ‘Arthur of the Bower’, and to die was to ‘rest in 
Arthur’s bosom’. The cry of the barnacle-goose is almost indis- 
tinguishable from the music of a pack of hounds on a hot scent. 
To quote the Whitby Glossary (1876): 

Gabriel Hounds : the flocks of wild-geese high in the air migrat- 
ing southward in the twilight evenings of autumn, their cry being 
more audible than the assemblage is visible. As the foreboders 
of evil, people close their ears and cover their eyes until the 
phalanx has passed over. 

[15^] 



MOTHER goose’s LOST GOSLINGS 

The Hounds of Hell are also variously known as ‘Yeth Hounds’, 
‘Wish Hounds’, ‘Yell Hounds’, ‘Gabriel Ratchets’, ‘Gobble- 
ratches and so on. Hounds and Wild Hunter are carved in stone 
outside the church door of Stoke Gabriel in Devon. The ‘ane- 
strand river is, in fact, the ocean of Death, across which no 
traveller can hope to return. 

Then at what time in the sixteenth century did a Royal 
Scottish banner need to be conveyed by wild geese across the 
one-strand river? The history books supply only one answer. 
On September 9, 1513, near Flodden Edge, in battle with the 
Earl of Surrey, James IV was killed fighting at the head of almost 
the entire chivalry of Scotland. So dreadful was the carnage 
dealt by the English ‘brown bills’ that the royal corpse was not 
found for some days afterj and when finally it was recognized 
by a glove and plaid, it could not be given Christian burial 
because the Pope had excommunicated James for his unprovoked 
attack on his ‘brother’, King Henry VIII of England. There 
remained only a single refuge for the unhouseled soul: the 
ancient pagan paradise of his royal ancestors.* Indeed, he had 
no choice; for as a Scottish rhyme says: 

The King o Scots wi a his power 
Canna stop Arthur o’ the Bower. 


; On November 29 1513, the Pope, at King Henry*s request, gave per- 

be buried with regal honours in St Paulas 
Cathedral. But, as we read in Stow’s Survey of London: 

in le? the body of the said king being found, was enclosed 
in lead, and conveyed from thence to London, and so to the monastery 
of Shene m Surrey, where it remained for a time, in what order I am 

EdwardTl’ dissolution of that house, in the reign of 

kdward VI ... I have been shown the same body so lapped in lead 

olT "^aste room amongst the 

Sle firih f workmen 

Were, for their foolish pleasure, hewed off his head; and Launcelot 

fforWencl'*" d ^ sweet savour to come 

from thence, and seemg the same dried from all moisture, and yet the 

form remaining with the hair of the head and beard red, brought it 

to London to h.s house in Wood street, where for a time he k!p 

fsi wf’ a “c' ‘he sexton of that Sch 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 

But why ‘grey goose’? Because the grey goose is also known 
as the lag from its habit of lagging behind when the barnacle- 
goose has migrated to its breeding grounds in Spitsbergen, and 
other varieties have flown to Iceland, Greenland, and Lapland. 
In early September the ‘lag’ would be the only wild goose likely 
to be encountered by a poet in the neighbourhood of Flodden. 

FINAL stage; Grey goose and garter^ 

W Ip your wings togidder 
And bear ye the gude King* s boner 
Owre the one-strand river. 

Gif ye wad ask me quhy this sang was made and quihlk was 
his maker, I answer: Ye man understond that whenas our brave 
Jamie iiii was slaine fechting dughtely at the heid of his 
grand battaile of Skottishe lairds and knichtis, on die morowe 
ane auld menstorall fortuned to come be fflodden hylls and 
Brankstone Muir quhair lay the lykis of the foresaid King and 
his deid lairds and knichtis, all manglit in peses and abandonat 
Starke nakid amang the wods and scrogs. Quhairat he made 
meikle dule that the sowl of King Jamie, and the sowlis of them 
that holp him, being excomminicat by the Pope of Rome, 
micht na be receivit intil the Paradise of our swete Saviour Jesu 
Crist. Bot espying ane parcel of grey geese quhilk sworn upon 
a water nere to hand (as fouls slow to flee after ther kin to the 
heich court and bower and septemtrionall tilt-yard of him 
quhilk men call Arthur) this same auld menstorall waefully 
strook the stringis of his harp and, being inspirit of the Muse 
Calliope, made him the sang quhairof I tell yow. 



THE OLD BLACK COW 


P awbyn llosgwrn ei henfon, ‘every man to the tail of his cow’, 
as the Welsh say, and the cow whose tail Professor Gwyn 
Williams* follows is the old black bardic Llywiadwr 
which gives whey instead of milk: not shining white Olwen, 
‘she of the white track’, known in Ireland as the Glas Gabnach! 
This Olwen was a moon-cow and once yielded creamy milk in 
such rivers that it formed the Milky Way. 

I was introduced to Welsh poetry nearly fifty years ago, 
when my father became an enthusiastic pan-Celt; and, this noun 
being new to Merioneth where we lived, he had a famous argu- 
ment with Mr Postoffice-Griffiths as to whether it would count 
as one word in a telegram, or cost a half-penny more as two 
words. Mr Postoffice-Griffiths finally conceded the point: ‘Very 
well, sir, one half-penny it shall be: on the analogy of a pancake 
I shouldn’t wonder.’ To our house came numerous Welsh 
bards, including Ceiriog (‘the Welsh Wordsworth’) whose non- 
bardic name I forget, and who was a stationmaster on the Cam- 
brian Railway; also gentle Canon Owen Edwards, whose bardic 
. forget; and the formidable, booming Arch-Druid Dyfed 
himself. It amused Canon Edwards to teach me the ninety-odd 
rules for writing the bardic englyn, which is to the Welsh what 
me tanka is m the Japanese; and in 1906 my father took me to the 
Carnarvon Eisteddfod where I watched his friends (dressed up 
m antique druidic robes, with Sunday-go-to-meeting boots and 
trouser-legs showing underneath, and bowler hats on their heads 

against the soft summer rain) assemble for the mock-antiaue 
opening ceremony, ^ 


c,:4 % G'tS; V nS ?zi tT 




THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 

But by then I was reading the Mabinogion^ in Lady Charlotte 
Guest’s translation; and an inspired fishmonger from Cricdeth 
had brought its wonders to life. He took me up into the hills 
and pointed out, on the enormous panorama of Merioneth and 
Carnarvon stretched before us, by what road a King of Dyfed 
once pursued the wizard Gwydion in an attempt to recover his 
pigs; and where the refugees fled from the drowned cantrevs 
of Gwynedd in the days of Prince Seithenyn; and, turning about, 
showed me the distant knoll of Mur-y-Castell, the scene ofLlew 
Llaw’s murder by the treacherous Flower-goddess Blodeuwedd. 
So Welsh poetry for me now meant the Mabinogion^ not the 
Eisteddfod contest for the Chair; though, as I knew from Canon 
Edwards, eisteddfod contests were of very ancient origin, and 
englynion in a primitive form dated back to the Battle of Cat- 
raeth — fought as long ago as 565 b.c., and celebrated by Aneirin 
in his Gododdin^ a Cymric poem not unlike the Chanson de Roland. 

It is not generally known that the Cymry were once as much 
foreigners in Wales as the hated Saxons who followed them. 
Soon after the Romans decamped, an army of adventurers from 
Kirkcudbright and Wigtown invaded North Wales under King 
Cunedda and, linking up with their Brythonic kinsmen in mid- 
Wales, imposed a barbarous aristocracy on the Goidelic and pre- 
Celtic peoples who then occupied the country. The Goidels 
were Aryans, like the Cymry, but being in numerical inferiority 
to the pre-Celtic tribes, had been converted to their matrilincal 
culture and accepted institutions which the battle-scarred Cymry 
rejected with scorn. Presently the Cymric kings, still behaving 
as foreigners, became Christianized, and the master-poets of the 
old religion — tellers of the earliest Mabinogion tales — were 
driven from their seats of learning, replaced by ecclesiastical 
bards of inferior education and powers, and forced to become 
wandering minstrels, or kerddorion. 

Professor Williams is referring to the effects of this literary 
revolution when he writes; 

In Wales, to say that a man is a poet immediately induces an 
attitude of respect for him . . . 

and goes on to explain: 

Most of the poetry of the present century has been written 
by Nonconformist ministers and University professors. 

[156] 



THE OLD BLACK COW 


This respectability he traces to Hywel the Good, a tenth-century 
King of North Wales who claimed descent from Cynedda, and 
whose laws regulated Welsh society before the coming of the 
Normans: 


Poets ranked high in the civil service of the Welsh kings. 
According to the laws of Hyw'el Dda, a poet became a penkerdd, 
or chief poet, when he won a chair, that is a seat in die immediate 
entourage of the king or prince. In the hall he then sat next but 
one to the edling^ or heir to the throne, the priest sitting between 
them. 


But on reaching down a dusty copy of Cyvreithiau Hywel Dda 
— ‘how do you manage for books in Majorca, Mr Graves.^* — 
from my legal shelf, I find that Professor Williams has not been 
quite accurate. Hywel Dda himself seems to have had little 
respect for poetry, since in the earliest version of the Cyvreithiau 
(Peniardd MS. 28) the penkerdd is not mentioned as having any 
place at court, and a version called the Demetian Code denies 
his right to one. Moreover, in the later Venedotian Code, the 
seat allotted him carries less honour than those of such minor 
functionaries as chaplain, steward, chief falconer, chief groom 

and page of the chamber; his worth is six score and six kine 

not above that of the porter and the queen’s candle-bearer. 

Ireland, where Christianity was not forcibly imposed on 
the Courts, and the master-poet, who was required to attend a 
twelve-year university course in the arts and sciences, exercised 
corresponding power, the Welsh bard would have been derided 
as an unqualified practitioner— and, indeed, that is the meaning 
of bard’ in Irish. He had served only a short apprenticeship 
and, as the Anomalous Laws suggest (Book iv, 2, p. 397) been 
appointed directly by the king— for his morals rather than 
IS poetic c^alities. He held his chair on the understanding that 
he praised God Almighty and his lord at set times, in set metres, 
m set diction, and that he avoided all ‘untruth’ — meaning any 
^ercise of the imagination that would puzzle the Chief of the 
Household s mead-sodden brain or bring a frown to the mutton- 
gorged chaplain’s brow. Poetry was defined for him as: ‘gram- 
matically accurate expressions, clothed in exalted diction, beauti- 
hed with becoming and approved epithets, signifying praise of 
good, dispraise of evil.’ He might also, as a dispe^ation, wriS 

[M7] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


poems proper to the teulwr^ or poet of the second category 
(namely gnomic stanzas, upright and stereotyped amatory verse, 
and rhymed lives of the saints), but nothing else. He never 
ceased to be under the strict moral control of the Chaplain and 
Chief of the Household, and could be fined or imprisoned for 
satire, parody or mimicry; for speaking disrespectfully of religion; 
for dicing in taverns; for quarrelsomeness; or for suggesting that 
any woman in Wales would ever, under any circumstances, 
behave with impropriety. His use of mythology was restricted 
to the ‘Triads of Wales’, a dry memoria technica^ already mean- 
ingless, of the ancient pre-Cymric tales which had been banned 
by the Church as ‘untruths’. Thus a penkerdd might praise his 
prince as having ‘the might of Aergwl, the disposition of Alex- 
ander, the strength of Alun, the energy of Beli, the sword-stroke 
of Peredur, and the courtesy of Medrod’ — without in the least 
knowing who these personages were. The Irish master-poet, 
on the other hand, was required to know three hundred and 
fifty ancient tales, each of them a night’s entertainment, and could 
recite any one of them correctly at a moment’s notice. 

Professor Williams, while dwelling proudly on the official 
bards of Wales, has no word of praise for the kerddorion^ the 
descendants of the dispossessed pre-Cymric master-poets, from 
whom royal favour continued to be withheld — and who managed 
to preserve a few of the old tales, despite all efforts to suppress 
them; yet one kerddor^ Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘ Bledhericus’, 
or Bleiddriw, introduced the tales to the Norman-French troveres^ 
thus setting a fashion of Arthurian romance throughout Western 
Europe. And it was these same outcasts — rather than, as Pro- 
fessor Williams would like to think, the teuluwr — whose obstinate 
adherence to their ancient poetic principles brought about the 
fourteenth-century renascence in Welsh poetry. When Professor 
Williams briefly mentions the Preiddeu Annwfn, ‘The Spoils of 
Tartarus’, because of a reference to King Arthur’s harrowing of 
Hell, he allows his readers to suppose that it is official verse, 
rather than a poem of ‘untruth’ — a biting satire by a kerddor, 
who called himself Gwion Bach of Llanfihangel, on the ignorance, 
cowardice and boastfulness of the official bards. 

This would pass as old-fashioned conservative obscurantism, 
were it not for the praise which Professor Williams inconsistently 
showers on the fourteenth-century Dafudd ap Gwilym who, 

[158] 



THE OLD BLACK COW 


being a real poet, behaved exactly as a penkerdd should not. 
Like his gifted friends Gruffudd ap Ada and Madog Benfras, 
Dafudd used non-Classical metres, versified tales of untruth, 
diced, whored, blasphemed: 

For God* s sake^ no more bread and water ^ 

Throw aside Lenten watercress^ 

For Mary* s sake^ cease your thin prayers^ 

The Romish monks* religion: 

Be not a nun in Springtime^ 

The grove is better than a nunnery . . . 

Come to the spreading birch 
The cuckoo* s woodland churchy 
Where none will mock at us 
For seeking Heaven in a green grove; 

Keep Ovid's book in mind 
And pray^ not too much faith! 


and when he should have roused the Welsh to perish magni- 
ficently in a rebellion against the English oppressors, was ex- 
changing englynion with charming but disreputable Gwerfil 
Mechain — who had written: 

I am the hostess of the irreproachable Ferry Tavern^ 

A white-gowned moon welcoming 
Any man who comes to me with silver — 

about his and her sexual anatomy. Dafudd often refers to him- 
self as a wandering minstrel; but since he came of a noble family, 
and towards the end of his life humorously reverted to the 
^enty-four Classical metres — the Job’s potsherd with which 
Welsh bards still scrape themselves — used by his more respect- 
able contemporaries, his moral shortcomings are here ascribed 
to the breakdown of Welsh social life after the conquest of Wales 
by the English. ‘When a nation is defeated,’ Professor Williams 
observes charitably, ‘there are sensitive spirits for whom politics 
and religion cease to be serious concerns.’ 

Besi(^s, Dafudd is long dead, poetry in dangerously free 
metres has come and gone, respectability is respectable again: 

[159] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


The competition for the Chair at this year’s Eisteddfod 
requires a poem of not more than three hundred lines in full 
cynghanedd [a form of balanced cross-aliiteration] employing any 
number of Davydd ap Edmwnd’s measures [Davydd ap Edmwnd 
was the bard who, in 145 ‘tightened up cynghanedd to a pitch 
of craziness’], including at least one awdl measure; and the 
winner may well be a shepherd, a postman, a preacher, or a 
journalist. 

As Gwion Bach, who had taken the trouble to give himself 
a proper poetic education in Ireland, remarked on a similar 
occasion about eight hundred years ago: 

Ni obrynaf lawyr Hen llywiadur — 
meaning: ‘I have a poor opinion of official Welsh literature/ 



THE ESSENTIAL E. E. CUMMINGS 


A REVIEW OF SIX NONLECTURES* 

I GET a warm feeling when I remember that, in the late ’twenties, 
I was probably the first Englishman to say a good word for 
E. E. Cummings as the author of Is 5 and other poems; and 
that I persuaded Jonathan Cape to publish his Enormous Room, 
the most hilarious account of prison-camp life that two world 

wars have produced. Since then Cummings has written little 

his only other long work, E/M/, a cross-grained comic diary 
of a visit to Soviet Russia is twenty years old now — and gone 
forward little; but neither has he gone backwards nor sold any 
pass. I bought his Collected Poems a year or two ago to see what 
had been happening since /s 5 and XL Poems and the play ///M- 
and the poems stood up, all stalwart and American, saying.- 
Sure, read us if you like!’; which I did with a deal of pleasurl 
But— if but be the right copulative— I realized for the first time 
his close kinship with Nicholas Vachel Lindsay, who though 
neither so c assically educated, so tough-shelled, so precise in 
language and punctuation; nor capable of such wicked and often 
pornographic satire; nor (being born into an elder generation of 
Puntan Progressives) so openly and happily devoted to carnality 
nevertheless was as ingenuous, noble-hearted, gentle, coura- 
geous, and hberty-loving as Cummings. And Lindsay proved 
equally apt, when least expected, to write an unforgettable line 

°r 3 row; and also equally capable 

f deep, brilliant, unblushing, folksy-homesy sentimentality. 

Both m fact are/were ideally representative of what an Ameri- 
can poet might once hope to be; a thing which apparently, as 
Lindsay admitted by his suicide, and as Cummings here indiStes 
y his rage against the spintually impotent pseudo-community 

♦ Geoffrey Cumberlege, Oxford University Press, 24s. 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


grovelling before the materialization of their own death wish', 
no American poet can plausibly hope to be again. 

Lindsay in his youth tramped around the States peddling 
The Village Maga:^ine^ written and illustrated by himself — I 
remember one pretty stanza: 

‘ Which is superior to which?' 

Asked the snob when she came to the City, 

‘/ want to know people to kick^ 

I want to know people to pity? 

and preaching the Gospel of Beauty. Anti-snob Cummings has 
been preaching the Gospel of /mess, as he calls poetic or artistic 
integrity, since at least 1922; and recently Harvard University, 
a beleaguered stronghold of U.S. academic freedom, invited him 
to lecture on it. This is the poetic wness he then defined: 

Fine and dandy: but, so far as I am concerned, poetry and 
every other art was and is and forever will be strictly and dis- 
tinctly a question of individuality. If poetry were anything — 
like dropping an atom bomb — which anyone did, anyone could 
become a poet merely by doing the necessary anything; what- 
ever that anything might or might not entail. But (as it happens) 
poetry is being, not doing. If you wish to follow, even at a 
distance, the poet’s calling (and here, as always, I speak from 
my own totally biased and entirely personal point of view) 
you’ve got to come out of the measurable doing universe into 
the immeasurable house of being. I am quite aware that wherever 
our so-called civilization has slithered, tliere’s every reward and 
no punishment for unbeing. But if poetry is your goal, you’ve 
got to forget all about punishments and all about rewards and 
all about self-styled obligations and duties and responsibilities 
etcetera ad infinitum and remember one thing only: that it’s you 
— nobody else — who determine your destiny and decide your 
fate. Nobody else can be alive for you; nor can you be alive for 
anybody else. Toms can be Dicks and Dicks can be Harrys, 
but none of them can ever be you. There’s the artist’s responsi- 
bility; and the most awful responsibility on earth. If you can 
take it, take it — and be. If you can’t, cheer up and go about 
other people’s business; and do (or undo) till you drop. 

In the first two nonlectures, as he prefers to call them, he 

[162] 



THE ESSENTIAL E. E. CUMMINGS 

described his old-hickory-cut New Hampshire father; crack shot, 
fly-fisherman, scholar, woodsman, clergyman, sailor, actor, 
photographer, painter, carpenter, plumber, ornithologist, taxi- 
dermist, Harvard lecturer, and hero. And his Roxbury mother: 
poetry-lover, Quaker, charity worker, heroine. And himself as 
a child, secure in a home which was all that an ideal American 
poet’s home should be; and where he read Scott, Dickens, Jules 
Verne, Harrison Ainsworth, Malory, Froissart, the J/o/jy Bible, 
Robinson Crusoe, The Swiss Family Robinson, Gullivers Travels 
Lorn^ Doone, Treasure Island, and The Arabian Nights~oAA ! 
no Twain, Alger, Fenimore Cooper, or Melville !— and now 

thanks a beneficent Providence that he passed through his child- 
hood without 

ever once glimpsing that typical item of an era of at least pen- 
ultimate confusion— the uncomic non-book. No paltry super- 
men, no shadowy space-cadets, no trifling hyperjunglequeens 
and pantless pantherwomen insulted my virginal imagination. 

One of the penalties of this New English education was that he 
earned at an early age ‘ the one and only thing which mattered 

recOTds^ meaning’. He 


A good poem was a poem which did good, and a bad poem 
was a poem which didn’t: Julia Ward Howe’s Battle Hymn of The 

good poem because it helped free the slaves, 
f I composed canticles of 

I Christians to assist poor- 

wo^^ Cohort for hook- 

worm), and I exhorted right-minded patriots to abstain from 
dangerous fireworks on the 4th of July. 

And being a good son and citizen he has never altogether divested 
a sTrt of D?^e about goodness, even after celebrating 

nor indeed of the red H which his mother knitted 
irnliia read Classics 

S he reaT Towards the close of eachTf 

The Ode on the Intimations of Immortality, in full, for his mothers 

[163] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


sake; a passage from Prometheus Unbound^ for Liberty’s sake; a 
border ballad in memory of Harvard’s Professor Francis James 
Child, who had baptized him; two pieces from Dante; three 
from Shakespeare; Burns’s Red Red Rose\ Keats’s Grecian Um; 
Swinburne’s When the Hounds of Spring', and (in frank tribute 
to Old Carnality) Donne’s To His Mistress Going to Bed, 

By thus loyally keeping his first loves in poetry always before 
his eyes, and not realizing how unworthy some of these are 
(judged by his own standards of /yness) to be set beside some of 
the others, he does his heart more credit than his five sound 
senses. Nor is he abashed to write, endite and publicly recite so 
intrinsically corny a sonnet as the one beginning: 

i thank You God for most this amazing 
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees 
and a blue dream of sky^ and for everything 
which is natural which is infinite which is yes 

(z who have died am alive again today, 
and this is the suns birthday; this is the birth 
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay 
great happening illimitably earth) 


In 1945 he ran, as he reminds his nonlectured, to the rescue of 
‘this self-styled world’s greatest and most generous literary 
figure, who had arrived at our nation’s capital, attired in half a 
G.I.’s uniform, and ready to be hanged as a traitor by the only 
country which has ever made even a pretence of fighting for 
freedom of speech’ — with the plea that this nontraitor had been 
‘true to the illimitable country of his own personal art’. There- 
upon he rages against ‘the supermechanized submorons... 
dedicated to a proposition that massacre is a social virtue because 
murder is an individual vice.’ Here I personally cannot follow 
him; the self-styled world’s greatest literary figure had com- 
promised his wness by raving anti-poetic generalities over the 
Fascist radio, and recommending that all Jews in Italy, as in 
Germany, should be sent to the gas-chamber. And the G.I.’s 
who made a buck-show of him when they caught him were, 

I assume, acting is\y, on individual impulse; castigating not the 
artist but the truth-perverting tool of wnesslessness. 

[164] 



THE ESSENTIAL E. E. CUMMINGS 

Cummings is at his best here when, as a ‘burlesk addict of 

long standing’, he mimics the voice of the America that he hates 
yet continues to live among: 

John viii, 7. 

So now let us tslk about something else. This is a free country 

because compulsory education. This is a free country because 

nobody has to eat. This is a free country because not any other 

country was is or ever will be free. So now you know and 
knowledge is power. 

An interesting fact when you come right down to it is that 
simple people like complex things. But what amounts to an 
extraordinary coincidence is mediocre people liking first-rate 
things. The explanation can’t be because complex things are 
simple. It must be because mediocre people are first-rate. 

TT wool over each other’s toes and go to 

Hell. John viii, 7. 

I regret that he did not include in the readings from his own 
work such jocund verses as SAe being brand-new^ describing Old 
Carnality in terms of the internal combustion engine; and the 
well-worn but ever-living mock-heroic stanzas beginning: 

come^ ga^e with me upon this dome 
of many coloured glass ^ and see 
his mother s pride^ his father* s joy ^ 
unto whom duty whispers low 

^ thou must/* and who replies "I can/* 

—yon clean upstanding well dressed bey 
that with his peers full oft hath quaffed 
the wine of life and found it sweet — 


a tear within his stern blue eye^ 
upon his firm white lips a smile ^ 
one thought alone: to do or die 
for God for country and for Yale 



JUANA DE ASBAJE 

afterwards JUANA inks de la cruz 
(with two of her poems) 

E very few centuries a woman of poetic genius appears, who 
may be distinguished by three clear secondary signs: learn- 
ing, beauty, and loneliness. Though the burden of poetry 
is difficult enough for a man to bear, he can always humble 
himself before an incarnate Muse and seek instruction from her. 
At the worst this Muse, whom he loves in a more than human 
sense, may reject and deceive him; and even then he can vent 
his disillusion in a memorable poem — as Catullus did when he 
parted from Clodia — and survive to fix his devotion on another. 
The case of a woman poet is a thousand times worse: since she 
is herself the Muse, a Goddess without an external power to guide 
or comfort her, and if she strays even a finger's breadth from the 
path of divine instinct, must take violent self-vengeance. For 
awhile a sense of humour, good health, and discretion may keep 
her on an even keel, but the task of living to, for, and with 
herself alone, will sooner or later prove an impossible one. 
Sappho of Lesbos, Liadan of Corkaguiney, and Juana de Asbaje 
belonged to this desperate sisterhood: incarnations of the Muse- 
goddess, cut off from any simple gossiping relation with their 
fellow-women, who either adored them blindly or hated them 
blindly, and from any spiritual communion with men on equal 
terms. Though a woman so fated cannot help feeling physical 
desire for a man, she is forbidden by her identity with the 
Goddess from worshipping or giving herself wholly to him, 
even if he desires to worship and give himself wholly to her. 
It is possible that Clodia was another of these unfortunates, so 
that the harder Catullus tried to please her, the more despairingly 
she fought him off: playing the society harlot rather than consent 

to bum with him in a mutual flame. 

About Clodia little is known, and about Catullus no more 

[i66] 



JUANA DE ASBAJE 


than his poems reveal. Even the story of Sappho survives only 
in fragmentary form. We learn that she was early married on 
Lesbos to one Cercolas, a man of no distinction, and bore him 
a daughter; that her learning and inventive faculties were memor- 
able; that she tutored girls of literary promise; that she rejected 
the advances of Alcaeus, the leading poet of his day; that she 
fled to Sicily from some unnamed trouble and, after an unhappy 
affair with one Phaon, a common sailor, ‘took the Leucadian 
leap’: which implies some spectacular act of self-destruction. 
The inter-relation of these bare facts remains obscure; yet it 
seems that a possessed woman poet will rather subject herself 
to a dull husband or ignorant lover, who mistrusts her genius 
and may even ill-treat her physically, than encourage the love 

of a Catullus or Alcaeus, which demands more than it is hers 
to give. 


The story of Liadan is also fragmentary. She was a brilliant 
young Irish ollamh (or master-poet) of the seventh century a.d., 
privileged to make semi-royal progresses from one great mansion 
to another, preceded by a peal of golden bells, and followed by 
a train of lesser bards and pupils. On one of these she went to 
Connaught, where the ollamh Curithir welcomed her to an ale 
feast. After the long exchange of riddling poetic lore in Old 
Coidehc customary on such occasions, he burst out suddenly: 

Why should we not marry, Liadan.? A son born to us would 
be famous. She was startled into answering: ‘Wait until my 
progress is done; then visit me at Corkaguiney and I will come 
with you. He did so, only to find that Liadan, regretting her 
lapse, had meanwhile taken a religious vow of chastity. In 
despair and anger, Curithir took a similar vow, and when they 
went away together, as agreed, it was to the monastery of Clon- 
fert, where Liadan insisted on placing herself under the spiritual 
direction of St Cummin, a hard and severe abbot. Curithir 
followed suit. Cummin found them two separate cells, offering 
Curithir the choice of either seeing Liadan without addressing 
her, or addressing her without seeing her. He chose the second 
alternative; and Liadan consented to this arrangement. They 

wander around the other’s 
attled cell until Liadan persuaded Cummin to grant Curithir 

peater freedom, of which she must have known that he would 
try to take advantage. As a result, he was banished from Clonfert 
M [167] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 

and sailed away to the Holy Land; but Liadan let herself die of 
remorse, because she had foolishly involved him in her ruin. 
Unlike Sappho and Liadan, Juana de Asbaje was born into a 
society where she must have seemed as portentous as a talking 
dove, or a dog which does long division. Neither in Lesbos nor 
ancient Ireland had limits been set to a woman’s learning. 
Sappho was no freak, but merely the truest of several famous 
women poets. Liadan, to win her peal of golden bells, had 
passed the ollamh's twelve-year course in literature, law, history, 
languages, music, magic, mathematics, and astronomy — one of 
incredible stiffness — and that a woman should so distinguish 
herself was not considered abnormal. In seventeenth-century 
Mexico, however, the Church had gained such a stranglehold 
on learning and literature that women, doctrinally debarred from 
the priesthood, and despised as the intellectual and moral inferiors 
of their fathers and brothers, could nurse no aspirations beyond 
a good husband, many children, and a Christian death. Only 
at the Viceregal Court might a lady read poems or romances, 
and thus equip herself for the games of chivalry in which etiquette 
required her to assist the courtiers; but even so, a confessor 
always stood by to check all signs of vanity or immodesty. 

Juana, born on November 12, 1651, was the daughter of Don 
Pedro Manuel de Asbaje, an immigrant Vizcayan, and Dona 
Isabel Ramirez, whose father, the head of a family long estab- 
lished in Mexico, owned a substantial estate near Chimalhuacan, 
and seems to have been a man of some cultivation. Juana’s 
mother, however, could neither read nor write and, when she 
died some thirty years later, it transpired that Juana and her two 
sisters had all been born out of wedlock; presumably because 
the father had left behind a wife in Spain. Though he seems to 
have legitimized the three of them before they grew up, it has 
been suggested that the shame of having been born a bastard 
encouraged Juana to excel as a poet, while it soured her against 
marriage; but this is mere speculation. 

One morning, when she was three years old, her sister said: 
‘Mother cannot have you about the house today. Come with 
me to school and sit quietly in a comer.’ Juana went . . . 

. . . and seeing that they gave my sister lessons, I so burned 
with a desire to know how to read that, deceiving the teacher, 

[168] 



JUANA DE ASBAJE 

as I thought, I told her that my mother had ordered her to give 
me lessons. She did not believe this, as it was incredible, but to 
humour me, she acquiesced. I continued to attend and she to 
teach me, not in mockery now, because experience had un- 
deceived her; and I learned to read in such short time tliat when 
my mother (from whom the teacher had hidden the matter in 
order to give her the pleasure and receive the reward all at once) 
found out, I was already proficient. I, too, had concealed it, 
thinking that they would whip me for acting without orders. 
She who taught me still lives, God preserve her, and can testify 
to the truth. ... I recall that in those days I had the appetite 
for sweets and delicacies that is common at such an age, but that 
I abstained from eating cheese because I had heard it said that 
taking this made one dull-witted; for my desire to learn was 
stronger than the wish to eat, which ordinarily is so powerful 
in children. 

At the age of six or seven, she pleaded to be enrolled at Mexico 
City University and, since the statutes barred women from 
taking the course, to have her hair cut and be dressed as a boy. 
When her mother laughingly refused, Juana took possession of 
her grandfather’s library, which no punishment could deter her 
from reading; and when she found that the most desirable books 
were in Latin, mastered the elements in fewer than twenty 
lessons and, before she was eight, could read and enjoy Plato, 
Aristophanes, and Erasmus. Juana now made life so difficult 
for her mother that she was sent to her uncle’s house in Mexico 
City, where she taught herself literature, science, mathematics, 
philosophy, theology, and languages. At the age of thirteen 
she was presented at Court by the uncle; there her exceptional 
talents, vivacity, and beauty— wide-set chestnut-coloured eyes, 
broad brow, quick smile, straight nose, determined chin, delicate 
fingers qualified her to be the darling and first lady-in-waiting 
of the Vicereine. For three years Juana took part in all the 
gallant diversions of the Viceregal Court, the cultural centre of 
the New World, and became its principal ornament, next to the 
regal pair themselves: studying every book that came to hand, 
and writing a profusion of court verse in Castilian, Latin, and’ 
Aztec— besides theatrical sketches, satires, verses of commen- 
dation and occasional trifles, some of them ‘highly seasoned’- 
^nd finding time for poetry of a truer and more personal kind! 
A great many well-born young men asked her hand in marriage, 

[169] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 

but she behaved with admirable discretion and refused their 

offers, though the Viceroy and Vicereine would doubtless have 
provided a dowry. 

When she reached the age of sixteen, the Viceroy heard her 
decried as having only a smattering of knowledge, and therefore 
summoned forty learned men — University professors, theo- 
logians, poets, mathematicians, and historians — to examine her in 
their various subjects. He afterwards recorded with satisfaction: 

Like a royal galleon beating off the attacks of a few enemy 
sloops, so did Juana fight clear of the questions, arguments and 
objections that so many specialists, each in his own department, 
propounded. . , . 

Father Calleja, of the Society of Jesus, her first biographer, 
asked Juana what impression this triumph, capable of puffing up 
even the humblest soul to self-importance, had made upon her. 
She replied: ‘It left me with no greater satisfaction than if I had 
performed a small task of hemstitching more neatly than my 
embroidery-teacher.* About this time she first expressed a total 
aversion to marriage. Her motives have ever since been hotly 
debated. Father Calleja suggests that she recognized the glitter 
of Court life as empty delusion; never fell in love with a man; 
and soon realized that only service to God could give her lasting 
happiness. This is still the view of the Church, despite her 
plainly autobiographical love-poems, written at the age of six- 
teen; Este amoroso tormento que en mi cora^dn se ve, and; Si otros 
ojos hi visto^ matenmCy Fabio^ tus airados ojos; and the poems of 
disillusion which followed, especially the famous: 

Hombres necios que acusdis 
a la mujer sin ra^on^ 

and the two scorching farewell sonnets to Silvio, whom she hates 
herself for having loved so well. 

Juana presently decided to become a nun, although, as she 
wrote later; ‘I knew that the estate implied obligations (I am 
referring to the incidentals, not the fundamentals) most repugnant 
to my temperament.’ In this course she was encouraged by her 
confessor, Father Antonio Nunez de Miranda, to whom ‘she 
broached all her doubts, fears, and misgivings’. Her first 
attempt failed: after three months as a novice among the Barefoot 



JUANA DE ASBAJE 

Carmelites, her health broke down, and she withdrew on doctor’s 
orders. Fourteen months later, however, she was well enough 
to enter a Jeronymite convent and in February 1669, having 
completed a short novitiate, took the veil as Sor Juana Inez de la 
Cruz, the name by which she is now generally known. 

Father Antonio did not insist that she should abandon her 
studies and, since the Jeronymites were the most liberal of the 
Orders in seventeenth-century Mexico, her cell soon became an 
academy, lined with books and filled with the instruments of 
music and mathematics. Juana learned to play several instru- 
ments, wrote a treatise on musical harmony, made a name as a 
miniaturist, became proficient in moral and dogmatic theology, 
medicine, canon law, astronomy, and advanced mathematics. 
Her library swelled to four thousand books, the largest in the 
New World, and it is recorded: 

. . . the locutorio of the Jeronimas was frequented by many of 
the highest in Mexico, thanks to the renown of Sor Juana. She 
had loved solitude but [her presence] brought her many dis- 
tinguished visitors. Not a Viceroy of that epoch but desired to 
know her and, from the highest to the lowest, they all consulted 
Juana on weighty affairs. A natural affability and graciousness 
made her lend herself with good will to these fatiguing visits. 

Juana continued to write verses, though none for publication: 
mostly birthday and name-day greetings addressed to her friends 
at Court, dedications, epitaphs, commemorations, rhymed letters 
of thanks for books or musical instruments — all smooth, eloquent, 
and highly rhetorical. To these she added sacred sonnets, dirges, 
roundelays, carols, panegyrics of saints, lively allegories, and 
religious plays. She was also a famous cook and for ever sending 
her friends gifts of confectionery: almond rings, nuns’ sighs 
(to use the politer phrase), cakes, and puff pastry of every kind. 
Accompanying these went humorous verses, such as this: 

To Her Excellency again ^ with a shoe embroidered in 
Mexican style^ and a parcel of chocolate: 

A cast glove is challenge: 

Contrariwise^ 

A cast shoe^ my Lady^ 

Surrender signifies. 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 

Frequent balls, concerts, and ballad-recitals were given in the 
Convent and patronized by the Viceregal pair who never failed 
to attend vespers there as an excuse for amusing and instructive 
conversation with the ‘Mexican Phoenix’. It was an easy life, 
since no limit was put on the number of Indian serfs owned by 
the sisters; one convent of a hundred nuns had five hundred 
such serving-women working for them. Juana was unlucky, at 
first, to be under a jealous and narrow-minded prioress, at whom 
she once shouted in exasperation: ‘Hold your tongue, you 
ignorant fool!’ The prioress complained to the then Arch- 
bishop of Mexico who, as an admirer of Juana, endorsed the 
prioress s complaint with: ‘If the Mother Superior can prove 
that this charge is false, justice will be done.’ 

Juana performed all the religious tasks laid on her, though not 
greedy of ecclesiastical advancement and, when on one occasion 
unanimously elected prioress, declined the honour. The gay 
times at the Convent seem to have ended with the Viceroy’s 
term of office; but her ‘passion to know’ remained as strong as 
ever, and this, she wrote, subjected her to more criticism and 
resentment than the massive learning she had already acquired. 
On one occasion a ‘very holy and candid prelate’ ordered her to 
cease from her studies. She obeyed in so far as she read no 
more books . . . 

. . . but since it was not within my power to cease absolutely, 

I observed all things that God created, the universal machine 
serving me in place of books. 

During the three months of the prelate’s continuance in office, 
she studied the mechanics of the spinning top, and the chemical 
reactions of convent cookery, making important scientific dis- 
coveries. Later, when she fell seriously ill, the doctors also 
forbade her to read, but . . . 

. . . seeing that, when deprived of books, her cogitations were 
so vehement that they consumed more spirit in a quarter of an 
hour than did four days* reading, 

they were forced to withdraw their prohibition. 

Juana’s confessor, still the same Father Antonio, now tried to 
dissuade her from seeing and writing to so many friends and 
learned laymen, on the ground that this was irreconcileable with 

[172] 



JUANA DE ASBAJE 

her profession; and when she would not listen to him, resigned 
his charge. Next, she was ordered by an unnamed superior to 
refute an admittedly unorthodox sermon preached by a famous 
theologian, the Portuguese Jesuit Father Antonio Vieira; which 
Juana did in a letter of such masterly argument, that when it was 
published (without her knowledge or permission) the most 
learned doctors of Spain and Portugal were highly diverted to 
find that this Mexican nun had completely demolished Vieira’s 
thesis; and sent her profuse congratulations. But one old friend, 
the Bishop of Puebla, qualified his praises with the suggestion 
that the letter proved how sadly she had wasted her talents in 
writing shallow verses and studying irrelevant and profane sub- 
jects; instead, she should have devoted herself to the unmasking 
of doctrinal error, now so rife in Christendom. Juana, deeply 
offended, replied that she made no claim to academic distinction, 
had written the letter only because ordered to do so and, when 
she saw it in print, had burst into tears, ‘which never come easily 
to me’. Then, rather than become a theologian, to the exclusion 
of all her other studies, she grimly sold her entire library for the 
benefit of the poor, together with all her musical and mathe- 
matical instruments; and submitted to the severest conventual 
discipline, which Father Antonio, returning in joy, unsuccess- 
fully begged her to moderate. This spectacular event created 
such a stir that the new Archbishop of Mexico similarly sold all 
his books, jewels, valuables, and even his bed. 

In 1695, some of the sisters fell ill of the plague, and Juana, 
though weakened by nearly two years of rigorous penance, set 
herself to nurse them; but presently caught the infection and 
succumbed. The Jeronymite records contain this sentence, 
scratched with Juana s fingernail dipped in her own blood — 
because she had renounced the use of pen and ink: 

Immediately above will be noted the day, month and year of 
my death. For the love of God and of His Purest Mother, I 
pray that my beloved sisters, both those now living and those 
who have gone before, will recommend me to Him — though 
I have been the worst woman in the world. 

Signed: I, Juana In^s de la Cruz. 

Juana de Asbaje wrote true poetry before she was seventeen- 
but what of her heiress and successor, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz? 

[173] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 

W^e can applaud the dazzling fantasy of Sor Juana’s religious 
verse, its perfect sense of rhythm and sure balance of phrases, 
its essential clarity, which shames the interlaced extravagances 
of contemporary Gongorists, and the universality of knowledge 
displayed by the incidental references. Yet the appeal is almost 
wholly to the intellect, Juana never became mystically involved 
with Christ, She accepted Him as a theological axiom, rather 
than as the divine bridegroom whom St Teresa knew, and of 
whom the medieval Irish nun wrote; 

Jesukin^ my Jesukin 

My small cell doth dwell within! 

With prelates have I nought to do: 

AW 's untrue but Jesukin. 

She was no longer the Muse of every Mexican gallant, though 
flatterers continued to call her ‘The Tenth Muse’; and as an 
intelligence she now functioned in a field which the ecclesiastics, 
to whom she had promised obedience, were always seeking to 
reduce; being forced to play a religious part in which she could 
not wholly believe, because it was repugnant to her temperament, 
yet at last playing it so successfully as at once to shame them and 
defeat her own ends. When she had sold her books and cut 
herself off from the world, the only solace left was the fellow- 
ship of her ignorant sisters, and even this seems hardly to have 
been an unmixed blessing; 

It happened that among other favours, I owe to God an easy 
and affable nature and the nuns loved me for it (without taking 
notice, like the good people they were, of my faults) and greatly 
enjoyed my company; knowing this and moved by the great 
love I had for them — since they loved me, I loved them more — 
diere were times when they intruded somewhat, coming to me 
to console themselves and to give me the recreation of their 
company. 

It was in no spirit of mock-humility that she described herself 
as the worst of women; writing the confession in her own blood. 
She meant that when she first took the Leucadian Leap by 
becoming a nun, it had not been into the sea of pure religion. 
Still keeping her intellectual pride, her thirst for scientific know- 
ledge and her pleasure in profane authors, lay visitors and the 

[174] 



JUANA DE ASBAJE 

minor pleasures of the flesh, she could remember what it had 
been to love and to write poetry; and her ancient powers still 
occasionally reasserted themselves, for instance in some of the 
songs, based on the Canticles^ which enliven her religious play 
The Divine Narcissus, Juana called herself the worst of women, 
it seems, because she had lacked sufficient resolution either to 
stick it out as a Muse, or make a complete renegation in the style 
of Liadan. 

Now, though both Liadan and Juana were young and famous 
women poets who took vows of celibacy and submitted to 
ecclesiastical discipline, it was Juana’s Irishness, rather, that first 
led me to compare them. Juana not only combined Christian 
ethics with pagan emotion, and profound learning with easy 
lyricism, like the ollamksy but had inherited their technique by 
way of the early medieval Latin hymns and the anti-monastic 
ballads of the Goliards. She too loved the short rhymed quatrain, 
and the internal rhymes of her Carol to St Peter: 

Y con plumas y voces veloces 
y con voces y plumas las sumas 
Cantad . . . 

were in the purest Bardic tradition, like St Bernard of Cluny’s 
Rhythm^ which begins: 

Hora novissima^ tempora pessima 
Sunti vigilemus 

Ecce minaciter imminet arbiter 
I lie supremus , . . 

Moreover, she excelled in satire of the scorching Irish sort that 
would'raise blotches on the victim’s face: her Lines to Sour-Faced 
Gila might have been written by the zxc\i-ollamh Seanchan Tor- 
pest himself, notorious for having rhymed rats to death.* Perhaps 
Juana’s Vizcayan blood was at work; an ancient tie of kinship 
and religion bound the Western Irish with the Northern Spanish 
—both peoplp had worshipped the same pre-Christian Muse- 
goddess and the doomed hero Lugos, or Lugh, her gifted son. 


* See pp. 41-44. 

[175] 


THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


POEMS BY JUANA DE ASBAJE, WITH 

TRANSLATIONS 

ARGUYE DE INCONSECUENTES EL GUSTO Y LA CENSURA 
DE LOS HOMBRES QUE EN LAS MUJERES ACUSAN 

LO QUE CAUSAN 

H ombres necios que acusdis 
a la mujer sin raidn^ 
sin ver que sois la ocasion 
de lo mismo que culpdis^ 

si con ansia sin igual 
solicitdis su desden 
^por que quereis que obren bien 
si las incitdis al mal? 

Combatis su resistencia 
y luego^ con gravedad^ 
dects que fui liviandad 

10 que hiio la diligencia, 

Parecer quiere el denuedo 
de vuestro parecer loco^ 
al nino que pone el coco^ 
y luego le tiene miedo, 

Querdisy con presuncidn necia, 
hallar a la que buscdis^ 
para pretendida^ Thaisy 
y en la posesiSn, Lucrecia, 

^Qui humor puede ser mds raro 
que el que yf alto de consejoy 

11 mismo empana el espejo 
y siente que no esti claro? 



JUANA DE ASBAJE 

Con el favor y el desden 
teneis condicion igual: 
quejandoos si os tratan maf 
burldndoos si os quieren hien. 

Opinion ninguna gana^ 
pues la que mds se recata^ 
si no os admite^ es ingrata^ 
y os admite^ es liviana. 


Siempre tan necios anddis 
que con desigual nivel 
a una culpdis por cruel 
y otra por fdcil culpdis, 

^Pues como ha de estar templada 
la que vuestra amor pretende^ 
si la que es ingrata ofende 
y la que es fdcil enfada? 


Mas entre el enfado y pena 
que vuestro gusto refiere 
bien haya la que no os quiere 
y dejaos en hora buena, 

Dan vuestras amantes penas 
a sus libertades alaSy 
y despues de hacerlas malas 
las queriis hallar muy buenas, 

^Cudl mayor culpa ha tenido^ 
en una pasidn errada^ 
la que cae de rogada^ 
o el que ruega de caido? 


cudl es mds de culpar^ 
aunque cualquiera mal haga^ 
la que peca por la paga 
o el que paga por pecar? 

[177] 


THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 

Pues ^para que os espantdis 
de la culpa que tenets? 
Queredlas cudl las haceis 
o hacedlas cual las buscdisy 

Dejad de soltcitar 
y despues^ con mds raion^ 
acusareis la aficion 
de la que os fuere a rogar, 

Bien con muchas armas fundo 
que lidia vuestra arroganciay 
pues^ en promesa e instancia 
iuntdis diablo^ came y mundo. 


AGAINST THE INCONSEQUENCE OF MEN’s DESIRES 

AND THEIR CENSURE OF WOMEN 
FOR FAULTS WHICH THEY THEMSELVES HAVE CAUSED 

Ah Stupid men^ unreasonable 
In blaming woman s nature^ 

Oblivious that your acts incite 
The very faults you censure. 

If of unparalleled desire^ 

At her disdain you batter 

With provocations of the fleshy 
What should her virtue matter? 

Yet once you wear resistance down 
You reprimand her^ showing 

That what you diligently devised 
W IS all her wanton doing. 

With love you feign to be distraught 
(How gallant is your lying! 

Like children^ masked with calabash^ 

Their own selves terrifying ^ 

[178] 



JUANA DE ASBAJE 

And idiotically would seek 

In the same woman s carriage 

A Thais for the sport of love^ 

And a Lucrece for marriage. 

What sight more comic than the man^ 
All decent counsel loathing,^ 

Who breathes upon a mirror s face 
Then mourns: ‘/ can see nothing! 

Whether rejected or indulged^ 

You all have the same patter: 

Complaining in the former case^ 

But mocking in the latter. 

No woman your esteem can earn^ 
Though cautious and mistrustful' 

You call her cruel^ if denied^ 

And if accepted^ lustful. 

Inconsequent and variable 

Your reason must be reckoned: 

You charge the first girl with disdain; 
With lickerishness y the second. 

How can the lady of your choice 
Temper her disposition ^ 

When to be stubborn vexes you^ 

But you detest submission! 

So^ what with all the rage and pain 
Caused by your greedy nature^ 

She would be wise who never loved 
And hastened her departure. 

Let loved ones cage their liberties 
Like any captive bird; you 

Will violate them none the less^ 
Apostrophizing virtue, 

[179] 


THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 

Which has the greater sin when burned 
By the same lawless fever: 

She who is amorously deceived^ 

Or he^ the sly deceiver? 

Or which deserves the sterner blarney 
Though each will be a sinner: 

She who becomes a whore for pay^ 

Or he who pays to win her? 

Are you astounded at your faults y 
Which could not well be direr? 

Then love what you have made her bey 
Or make as you desire her, 

I warn you: trouble her no morCy 
But earn the right to visit 

Your righteous wrath on any jade 
Who might your lust solicit. 

This arrogance of men in truth 
Comes armoured with all evil — 

Sworn promise y plea of urgency — 

O world y O fleshy O devil! 


VILLANCICOS QUE SE CANTARON EN LA CATEDRAL DE MEXICO, 
EN LOS MATINES DEL PRINCIPE DE LA IGLESIA, 

SENOR SAN PEDRO, 

EL ANO DE 1677 

Estribillo 

Serafines aladosy celestes jilguerosy 
templad vuestras plumaSy cortad vuestros ecoSy 
y con plumas y voces aladaSy 
y con voces y plumas templadasy 
cantady escribid de Pedro los hechos^ 
y con plumas yy voces 
veloceSy 

y con voces y plumes 
las sumas 

cantady escribid de los hechos de Pedro, 

[180] 



JUANA DE ASBAJE 

Coplas 


Reducir inf alible 

quietude del viento inquieto las mudan^aSy 
es menos imposiblcy 
que de Pedro cantar las alaban^aSy 
que apenas reducir podrdn a sumaSy 
de las alas queriibicas las plumas. 


Mds que al Cielo de estrellas 

nlimero hay de excelenciasy que le asista; 

^pues qui dire de aquellaSy 

que imperceptihles son a nuestra vista? 

^si a decir las sabidas no acertamoSy 

c6mo podre cantar las que ignoramos? 


Poner Pedro la planta 
adonde Cristo la cabe\a pusOy 
mister'w eSy que adelanta 
el respeto que el Cielo nos impuso: 
pues de besar el pie Cristo se precia 
a Pedro por cabe^a de la Iglesia, 


Que il es PedrOy responde 

Cristo cuando el Dios vivo le ha llamado; 

porque tal gloria esconde 

este nombre de Pedro veneradoy 

que no hallando a sufcy que satisfagay 

s6lo en llamarle Pedro Dios le paga. 


iVb le dijoy que il era 

cabeia de la iglesia militantey 

ni que era la primera 

puerta para pasar a la triunfantCy 

ni que a la redondei; alumbra el dlas 

su pescador anillo ceniria, 

[i8i] 


THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 

Ni que entre justos tantos 

tendrd el primer lugar entre los hombres; 

gocen olid otros Santos 

de gloriosos altisimos renombres^ 

cual la palma inmortal^ cual verde cedro^ 

que a mi Pedro le basta con ser Pedro, 

Pues si tal ensenan:^a 

nos muestra vuestro titulo y noble^a^ 

y que vuestra alaban-^a 

encierra en vuestro nombre mds grande^a^ 

no quiero yo alabaros de otro mode: 

Pedro sois^ y en ser Pedro la sois todo. 


CAROL SUNG IN THE CATHEDRAL OF MEXICO CITY AT THE 

MATINS OF OUR LORD SAINT PETER, 

PRINCE OF THE CHURCH, 

A.D. 1677 

Winged seraphin, celestial linnets, 

Trim your feathers, still your echoes. 

And with feathers and winged voices 
Sing, write the deeds of Peter: 

O, with feathers and voices 
Swift-flying, 

O, with voices and feathers, 

Singing and writing. 

Sum the deeds of Peter 1 


What? Reduce to infallible quiet 
The shifts of the unquiet wind? 

Even that were less impossible 

Than to sing Peter s praises 

Which the very feathers of the cherubs* wings 

Could scarce reduce to a sum. 



JUANA DE ASBAJE 

More than the stars of Heaven in number 
Are the merits that attend him. 

How then to celebrate such finenesses 
As must elude our vision!* 

If we cannot certify things known to us^ 
How chant of things we know not? 


That Peter his sole rested 
Where Christ rested His head^ 

Is a mystery enhancing 
Awe which Heaven has upon us laid: 
Since by Christ’s kissing of that foot 
Peter was hallowed as the Church's head. 


‘ Thou art Peter ^ Christ replied 

When greeted by him as the Living God — 

For the reverend name of Peter 

Enshrines such glory 

That^ finding other fee too poor^ 

God recompensed his faith with this alones 


And did not manifest him as the head 
Of the Church Militant^ 

And the fir 7t gate wherethrough 
The Church should pass triumphant^ 

Nor told him that the Fisherman s ring would loop 
The round hori:ion beamed upon by day; 


N or that of all men ever born 
He would hold first place among the just, 
O then, let other Saints in Heaven enjoy 
H onour s most glorious and most high , 

Be it deathless palm^ or cedar evergreen; 
My Peter it suffices to be Peter, 

[183] 


N 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 

Envoie 


Wherefore^ since Christ's Own declaration 
Blazoned your title and nobility y 
And since your praise must rest upon 
The supreme grandeur which your name encloses y 
I would not praise you otherwise than thus: 
'‘Peter thou art andy being sOy art all/' 



THE POET AND HIS PUBLIC: 


A HOME SERVICE BROADCAST 


H ere I sit, alone in a sound-proof room, at a table bare but 
for my papers, a pencil, and a glass of water. I am sup- 
posed to be addressing my public, as members of other 
professions in this series have addressed theirs. An awkward 
situation. The chances are that not more than one person in 
every hundred has read my poems even by mistake — except 
perhaps a few rhymes which I wrote nearly forty years ago and 
which have got fossilized in school anthologies. The chances 
are equally against any immediate increase in the number of my 
readers because of this broadcast. 


The you will notice, have not supplied with me an 

audience to make encouraging noises and laugh in the right 
places, as they do for highly-paid comedians. I dare say they 
might have raked together a sympathetic audience, if I had 
insisted. (I was an old friend of the Corporation’s while it was 
still only a Company, and announced itself as 2 LO; when you 
veteran listeners were using home-made crystal sets with cat’s 
whiskers; and every time a bus went down the Strand you heard 
the rumble.) But a poet needs no audience: he can do very well 
without the giggle or horse-laugh so necessary for the comedian, 
rhe comedian tries to make his public as large as possible, and 
loses no opportunity of meeting it in person; he takes it out to 
dinner (so to speak) and pets it, and gives it photographs signed 
m enormous round handwriting — ‘To my own darling Public 
from your adorer Charlie.’ And he joins in every merry romp 
that will bind him and it more lovingly together. The poet 
behaves quite differently towards his public — unless he is not 
really a poet but a disguised comedian, or preacher, or space-buyer. 

Lrankly, honest Public, I am not professionally concerned 
with you, and expect nothing from you. Please give me no 

[185] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


bouquets, and I will give you no signed photographs. That 
does not mean that I am altogether untouched by your kindness 
and sympathy, or that I dislike the money which two or three 
thousand of you invest in new' volumes of my poems. All I 
mean is that these poems are not addressed directly to you in the 
sense that the comedian’s jokes are; though I don’t in the least 
mind your reading them. Of course, I also write historical novels, 
which is liow' I make a living. My motive or excuse is usually to 
clear up some historical problem which has puzzled me, but I 
never forget that these novels have to support me and my large 
family. So I think of the average, intelligent, educated general 
reader, and try to hold his attention by writing as clearly and 
simply and unboringly as the subject allow's. Money’s tight these 
days, and T should think very ill of myself unless I made the 
novels as lively as possible — just as the greengrocer or butcher 
prides himself on selling the freshest, tastiest produce of the 
marker, and at a reasonable price. Here duty and self-interest go 
hand in hand; because once one tries to pass off bad stuff as 
good, the customer will shop elsewhere and advise liis friends to 
do the same. 


Towards my poetry-reading public, however, I feel no such 
tenderness. By this I do not mean that I have stricter standards 
in prose than in poetry. On the contrary, poems are infinitely 
more difficult to write than prose, and my standards are corres- 
pondingly higher. If I re-write a line of prose five times, I 
re-write a line of verse fifteen times. The fact is, that I could 
never say: ‘Funds are low, I must wTite a dozen poems.* But I 
might well say: ‘Funds are low^, it’s time I wrote another novel.’ 
Novels are in the public domain, poems are not. I can make this 
last point clear by talking about important letters. Most of the 


important letters you write fall into two different categories. 
The first is the business letter — ‘Sir: I beg to advise you in reply 
to your communication of the 5th ultimo . . .’ — written with an 
eye on office hies. Tliis sort of letter is in the public domain. 
But not the other sort, the personal letter beginning: ‘Darling 
Mavis, w'hen we kissed good-bye last night . . Or: ‘Dear 
Captain Dingbat, you go to blazes 1 ’ — in each case written to 
convey a clear and passionate message, and without a thought 
for any libel suit, or breach of promise action, in which it may 
one day be produced as evidence against you. So with poems. 

[186] 



THE POET AND HIS PUBLIC 


We must distinguish those written with a careful eye to the 
public files from those written in private emotion. Of course, 
this comparison is not quite exact. Though some poems (for 
example, most of Shakespeare’s Sonnets) are in the love-letter 
category, and others (for example, a couple of the same Sonnets) 
are in the ‘You go to blazes!’ category; yet in most cases the 
poet seems to be talking to himself, not either to his beloved 
or to his enemy. 

Well, then, for whom does he write poems if not for a par- 
ticular Mavis or Captain Dingbat.^ Don’t think me fanciful when 
I say that he writes them for the Muse. ‘The Muse’ has become 
a popular joke. ‘Ha, ha, my boy!’ exclaims Dr Whackem, the 
schoolmaster, when he finds a rude rhyme chalked on the black- 
board. So you have been wooing the Muse^ have you.^ Take 
that, and that, and that!* But the Muse was once a powerful 
goddess. Poets worshipped her with as much awe as smiths felt 
for their god Vulcan; or soldiers for their god Mars. I grant 
that, by the time of Homer, the ancient cult of the Muse had 
been supplanted by the cult of the upstart Apollo, who claimed 
to be the god of poets. Nevertheless, both Homer’s Iliad and 
Homer’s Odyssey begin with a formal invocation to the Muse. 
When I say that a poet writes his poems for the Muse, I mean 
simply that he treats poetry with a single-minded devotion 
which may be called religious, and that he allows no other 
activity in which he takes part, whether concerned with his 
livelihood or with his social duties, to interfere with it. This 

has been my own rule since I was fourteen or fifteen, and has 
become second nature to me. 

Poems should not be written, like novels, to entertain or 
instruct the public; or the less poems they. The pathology of 
poetic composition is no secret. A poet finds himself caught in 
some baffling emotional problem, which is of such urgency that 
it sends him into a sort of trance. And in this trance his mind 
works, with astonishing boldness and precision, on several 
imaginative levels at once. The poem is either a practical answer 
to his problem, or else it is a clear statement of it; and a problem 
clearly stated is half-way to solution. Some poets are more 
plagued than others with emotional problems, and more con- 
scientious in working out the poems which arise from them— 
that is to say more attentive in their service to the Muse. 

[187] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 

Poems have been compared to pearls. Pearls are the natural 
reaction of the oyster to some irritating piece of grit which has 
worked its way in between its valves; the grit gets smoothed 
over with layers of mother-of-pearl until it ceases to be a nuisance 
to the oyster. Poems have also been compared to honey. And 
the worker-bee is driven by some inner restlessness to gather 
and store honey all summer long, until its wings are quite worn 
out, from pure devotion to the queen. Both bee and oyster, 
indeed, take so much trouble over their work that one finds the 
geography books saying; ‘The oysters of Tinnevelly yield the 
most beautiful pearls on the Indian market,* or: ‘The bees of 
Hymettus produce the sweetest honey in the world.* From this 
it is only a step to the ridiculous assumption that the oyster is 
mainly concerned in satisfying the Bombay pearl merchants* love 
of beauty; and the bees in delighting gourmets at the world*s 
most expensive restaurants. The same assumption, almost equally 
ridiculous, is made about poets. 

Though we know that Shakespeare circulated a few of his 
less personal sonnets among his friends, he is unlikely to have 
had any intention of publishing the remainder. It seems that 
a bookseller-publisher, one Thorp, bought the manuscript from 
the mysterious Mr W.H., to whom they were addressed, and 
pirated the whole series. Nevertheless, a poem is seldom so 
personal that a small group of the poet*s contemporaries cannot 
understand it; and if it has been written with the appropriate 
care — by which I mean that the problem troubling him is stated 
as truly and economically and detachedly as possible — they are 
likely to admire the result. The poem might even supply the 
answer to a pressing problem of their own, because the poet is 
a human being, and so are they. And since he works out his 
* own problems in the language which they happen to share, 
there is a somewhat closer sympathy between his public and 
himself, even though he does not write directly for it, than 
between the oyster and the oyster's public, or the bee and the 
bee's public. 

A poet's public consists of those who happen to be close 
enough to him, in education and environment and imaginative 
vision, to be able to catch both the overtones and the under- 
tones of his poetic statements. And unless he despises his 
fellow-men, he will not deny them the pleasure of reading what 

[i88] 



THE POET AND HIS PUBLIC 


he has written while inspired by the Muse, once it has served his 
purpose of self-information. 

Young poets tend to be either ambitious, or anxious to keep 
up with fashion. Both these failings — failings only where poetry 
is concerned, because they are advantages in the business world 
and in most of the professions — encourage him to have designs 
on the public. The attempt to keep up with fashion will lead 
him to borrow the style of whatever poet is most highly approved 
at the time. . , . Now, I have known three generations of John 
Smiths. The type breeds true. John Smith II and III went to 
the same school, university and learned profession as John 
Smith 1. Yet John Smith I wrote pseudo-Swinburne; John Smith 
II wrote pseudo-Brooke; and John Smith III is now writing 
pseudo-Eliot. But unless John Smith can write John Smith, 
however unfashionable the result, why does he bother to write 
at all.^ Surely one Swinburne, one Brooke, or one Eliot are 
enough in any age.^ 


Ambition has even worse results. The young poet will try 
to be original; he will begin to experiment: a great mistake. It is 
true that if an unusually difficult problem forces a poet into a 
poetic trance, he may find himself not only making personal 
variations on accepted verse forms but perhaps (as Shakespeare 
and Hardy did) coining new words. Yet innovation in this 
sense is not experiment. Experimental research is all very well 
for a scientist. He carries out a series of routine experiments in 
the properties (say) of some obscure metallic compound, and 
publishes the results in a scientific journal. But poetry cannot be 
called a science; science works on a calm intellectual level, with 
proper safeguards against imaginative freedom. 

And what is all this nonsense about poetry not paying.^ Why 
should it pay.;* Especially when it is experimental in the scientific 
sense? Poets today complain far too much about the economic 
Situation, and even expect the State to support them. What 
social function have they.^ They are neither scientists, nor enter- 
tainers, nor philosophers, nor preachers. Are they then ‘un- 
acknowledged legislators*, as Shelley suggested.^^ But how can 
unacknowledged legislators be publicly supported by the leeis- 
lature itself.^ If a poet is obsessed by the Muse and privileged to 
satisfy her demands when he records his obsessions in poetry, 
this in itself should be sufficient reward. I doubt whether he 

[189] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 

should even bargain with the public, like Wee MacGregor 
(wasn t it?) with his school-friend: ‘Gie me a bite of your apple, 
and ril show you my sair thumb!’ It always surprises me to 
find that my personal poems have a public at all; probably most 
of my readers buy them because of my novels — which I think is 
a very poor reason. 

So much for the poet in his unjustified search for a public. 
Now about the public in its justified search for a poet. Public, 
you sent me a one-man delegation the other day in the person 
of a worthy, well-educated, intelligent, puzzled paterfamilias, 
who happened to be closely connected with the publishing trade. 
This is how he began: T must be getting old and stupid, Robert, 
but I can’t really follow more than an occasional line of this 
modern poetry. I feel quite ashamed of myself in the presence 
of my boy Michael and his friends.’ 

I asked him to explain. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘when I was young 
and keen on modern painting I had a fight with my father 
because he couldn’t appreciate Toulouse-Lautrec or the Douanier 
Rousseau. And now an important Toulouse-Lautrec fetches as 
much as a Botticelli; and if you own a Douanier Rousseau, you 
have to install a burglar alarm. . . . Michael and his friends take 
the same line about Mr X and Mr Y; and so does everyone else 
at Cambridge. Mr X’s Collected Poems have recently sold ten 
thousand copies, and Mr Y is regarded as the highest apple on 
the tree. All the critics can’t be wrong.’ 

‘Why can’t all the critics be wrong?’ I asked. ‘If you mean 
the un-poets who set the Paris fashions. Who decides on this 
year’s skirt-length? Not the women themselves, but one or two 
clever man-milliners in the Rue de la Paix. Similar man-milliners 
control the fashions in poetry. There will always be a skirt- 
length. . . . And as William Blake said: “In a Commercial 
Nation impostors are abroad in every profession.’’ How do you 
know that twenty years hence Messrs X and Y won’t be as old- 
look as Humbert Wolfe and John Freeman, who were public 
idols twenty or thirty years ago?’ 

He said: ‘Toulouse-Lautrec and Rousseau aren’t old-look.’ 

I pacified him by agreeing that it would take a lot to kill 
either; or, for that matter, Botticelli. Then he asked the question 
that you are all itching to ask me: ‘How can you tell good poetry 
from bad?’ 

[190] 



THE POET AND HIS PUBLIC 


I answered: ‘How does one tell good fish from bad? Surely 
by the smell? Use your nose.’ 

He said: ‘Yes, perhaps with practice one can tell the clumsy 
from the accomplished. But what about the real and the arti- 
ficial?’ 

‘ Real fish will smell real, and artificial fish will have no smell 
at all.’ 

He thought this rather too slick an answer, so I explained; 
‘If you prefer the painting metaphor, very well. The test of a 
painting is not what it looks like in an exhibition frame on 
varnishing day; but whether it can hang on the wall of your 
dining-room a year or two after you bought it without going 
dead on you. The test of a poem is whether you can re-read it 
with excitement three years after the critics tell you it’s a master- 
piece. Well, the skirt-length of fashion has wandered up and 
down the leg from heel to knee since I first read my elder con- 
temporaries Thomas Hardy and William Davies and Robert 
Frost; and my younger contemporaries Laura Riding, Norman 
Cameron and James Reeves. They have all at times written 
below their best, and none of them are in fashion now, but their 
best does not go dead on the wall.’ 

To conclude. The only demands that a poet can make from 
his public are that they treat him with consideration, and expect 
nothing from him; and do not make a public figure of him — but 
rather, if they please, a secret friend. And may I take this oppor- 
tunity for appealing to young poets: not to send me their poems 
for my opinion? If they are true poems, they will know this 
themselves and not need me to say so; and if they are not, why 
bother to send them? 



BEST MAN, BORE, BAMBOOZLE, ETC. 

N ot long ago, because I had described myself as an ex- 
member of the Anglican Communion, a Northern daily 
newspaper branded me as a ‘renegade protestant*. When 
they tried to justify the libel by quoting the Concise Oxford 
English Dictionary^ I replied that the Concise O.E.D, sacrifices 
accuracy to brevity, and referred them to the 13-volume O.E.D. 
itself to prove that before qualifying as a renegade one must 
embrace a rival faith — such as Mohammedanism or Judaism — 
which I had demonstrably not done. Only there, I insisted, can 
one hope to find the whole meaning and atmosphere of English 
words unequivocally set out with illustrative quotations. 

The newspaper proprietors printed the apology I demanded, 
not venturing to argue further. Yet the O.E.D, has no official 
standing of the sort enjoyed in France by the great Dictionary 
which the Academie Franfaise sponsors and keeps up to date. 
It abstains from such critical judgements as ‘This is correct 
English; that is incorrect', and is no more than a large dated 
collection of verbal usages, some of them plainly ignorant or 
perverse. The validity or need of many forms may be disputed 
— for instance, the forms refectorian^ refectorary and refectorer 
are all dubious variants of refectioner^ meaning the official in 
charge of the refectory', yet their literary occurrence must be 
accepted as historical because noted in the O.E.D, — and they 
can therefore be quoted as precedents by writers who wish to 
use them again instead of either refectioner or refectuary, which 
is how the word should properly be formed from the medieval 
Latin refectuarius. The English language is, in fact, regulated 
by judge-made law, rather than by a Code or by Acts of Par- 
liament. 

No other dictionary of English, of course, comes within 

[192] 



BEST MAN, BORE, ETC, 

measurable distance of this, and every poet should have con- 
tinuous access to it. I would sooner part with my overcoat than 
with my much-travelled set. When it is supported by the 
6-volume Dialect Dictionary^ a Slang Dictionary and a Dictionary 
of Americanisms, most questions about the date, derivation and 
meaning of any word can be satisfactorily settled. But not, 
I admit, all questions. I have consulted my 0 ,E,D. on an 
average three times a day for the last twenty-five years, and have 
often enough been left dissatisfied or doubtful. Only yesterday, 
for instance, I looked up the heraldic term lion leopardee and read 
that, in French heraldry, it means a lion passant (walking and 
turning full face) as in our Royal coat of arms. Yet in an authori- 
tative Majorcan sixteenth-century armorial^ the so-called lion 
leopardie which appears on the Bonapart coat is rampant gardant 
— like the crowned lion which, with the unicorn, supports the 
Royal Crown. Since therefore Majorcan heraldry was French 
and the Bonaparts came from Languedoc, did the author of the 
armorial perhaps blazon the arms incorrectly.^ Or is the O.E,D, 
wrong in suggesting that a lion leopardee cannot ramp.^ 

Best man is a convenient example of an entry which fails to 
pass muster. The editors have defined the word as ‘ groomsman, 
or friend of the bridegroom*, rather than as ‘paranymph, or 
bridegroom’s adjutant Paranymph (correctly defined in a later 
volume) is the more accurate term because, as the quotations 
under groomsman show, a bridegroom may have any number of 
groomsmen, but only one paranymph; and because a ‘best man* 
is not necessarily the bridegroom’s friend- — cases have been 
known in which a titled relative of the bride’s family, whom the 
bridegroom has never met, is foisted on him at the altar steps to 
give the wedding greater cachet. Worse, the meaning of best is 
not defined here — are the criteria of his excellence, moral, physical 
or social.^ — and ‘of Scottish origin* though supported by the 
two earliest quotations given (1814 and 1823) is shown to be 
incorrect by Robert Plot’s Natural History of Oxfordshire (1705). 
Plot writes in Chapter 8, illuminating the whole question: 

We may reckon many ancient customs still retain’d here, 
abolish’d and quite lost in other Counties^ such as that of Running 
at the Quinten . . . once a trial of M.anhood between two Parties*, 
since that, a Contest among Friends, who should wear the gay 
Garland, but now only in request at Marriages and set up in the 

[193] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 

way for Young Men to ride at, as they carry home the Bride, 
he that breaks the Board being counted the Best Man. 

Again, Plot’s use of the word Board as a synonym for auinten, 
or quintam, ,s not listed; nor gay Garland, as specifically mean- 
ing a flowery wreath awarded to men for prowess in rural sports; 
though the garland is noted as worn by the elected May Queen 
or by girls as a prize for some kind of competition’. 

The adverb so so, defined as ‘in an indifferent, mediocre, or 
passable degree’ is given the same derivation as the adjective 
so so which IS similarly defined as ‘indifferent, mediocre, of 
middling quality . Now, the adverb so so (like sae sae in Scot- 
land, j'oo ^oo in Dutch, and so so in German) has lost the accom- 
panying gesture which its French and Spanish equivalents retain. 
Comme fi, comme fa, and asi asi are spoken with a see-sawing 
motion of the hand to suggest ‘sometimes better, sometimes 
v^rse . But the Spanish adjective soso, spoken with a gesture 
of dismissal, and seemingly derived from the Latin sopire, ‘to 
deprive of feeling, or sense*, is unconnected with a.r/ asL It 
means ‘downright dull, vapid, tasteless*. And since the English 
adjective soso, first used by Nicolas Udall (1542), is spelt as one 
word and applied by him to weak wine, it seems to be the bor- 
rowed Spanish adjective rather than an adaption of the earlier 
English adverb so so. 

The editors define the verb bore as ‘to weary by tedious con- 
versation, or simply by the failure to be interesting’, and the 
noun bore as the malady of ennui but cannot agree on an 
etymology for either. While avoiding the usual explanation that 
the Biblical use of bore, ‘to insist upon a hearing*, accounts for 
both the noun and the verb, they presume a French origin and 
unconfidently mention bourre, ‘padding* or ‘triviality*, and 
bourrer, ‘to satiate* as perhaps the words implicated. But they 
say nothing of the Spanish words aburrir, ‘to bore*, and burrada, 
a boring occasion*, which come much closer in sense to bore, 
and are derived from burro, ‘ass’. Aburrir is ‘to make an ass of* 
by rustic and relentless shouting. Moreover, this sense of bore 
recalls the earlier one found in the Life of Thomas Cromwell 
(1602): ‘One that hath gulled you, that hath bored you, sir,* 
and Fletcher’s Spanish Curate (1622): ‘I am laughed at, baffled 
and bored, it seems . , .* where ‘made an ass of* comes closer 

[194] 



BEST MAN, BORE, ETC. 

to the intended sense than anything that the O.E,D, can 
adduce. 

Another word for which no derivation has been suggested is 
jamboree^ though the quotations supplied point to a solution. 
The entry runs: 

Jamboree: U.S. slang. A noisy revel; a carousal or spree. 

1872. Scribner’s Mag, iv. 363 (Farmer) There have not been 
so many dollars spent on any jamboree; 1878. W. H. Daniels, 
That Boy^ XV. 236. He enjoyed a drinking bout or jamboree as 
well as if he couldn’t write the finest poetry in the language; 
1895, W. O’Brien. On the Eve^ 25/2. The Orange bad boys 
who , , . would be making the air of Belfast hideous about this 
time of the year with their annual jamboree over the July 
anniversaries. 


Here the second and third references securely connect the word 
with Ireland. Jamboree is now generally associated with the 
Boy Scout Movement, because Sir Robert Baden-Powell, the 
founder, applied it in 1902 to his camp-rallies at which noisy 
songs were sung and buns and ginger-pop consumed; and it is 
more likely that Sir Robert borrowed jamboree from the camp- 
fire talk of his regiment, the 13th Hussars, who were largely 
recruited from Ireland, than from U.S. slang, which by 1902 
had made little headway in the British Army. Can the word be 
Irish Gaelic.^ Admittedly, Gaelic has no y. Its place is taken by 
sh\ thusy^Aw becomes Shawn^ and James becomes Shamus. But 
all Irish dictionaries agree that Shan means ‘great’, and Bairghin 
(pronounced barreen) means ‘a circular shape, especially that of 
a large cake baked for wakes or other jollities’. Shan Bairghin 
would connote a great circle of feasters’ and, when Anglicized, 
the n of Shan would easily become m before A; as the cant word 
benbouse used by Fletcher in his Beggars Bush (1622) — ‘a can 
of benbouse had formed the word bamboozle by 1700. Thus 
Shan Bairghin^ v/rhten jambarreen^ is shortened lo jamboree^ on 
an analogy of spree, whoopee, and other jollificatory words; 
except in Australia where, either on the analogy of hullabaloo, 
and to provide a rhyme for kangaroo, it becomes jamboroo. 

Here we have stumbled on another weakness in the 0 ,E.D. 
The note to bamboo:Je is: 

Probably of cant origin. The statement that it is a Gipsy word 

wants proof. ^ 

[195] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 

No mention is made of henhouse^ which is the vagabonds’ version 
of the French bon boisson^ ‘good drink’ and the second syllable 
of which survives in the familiar English booie. To bambooile 
iSj apparently, to make a man drunk with a view to defrauding 
him. 

It will be noticed that four of the entries here criticized come 
under B — the A.B. volume was prepared between 1882 and 1888, 
before the editors and their research teams had settled down into 
their stride. The inadequacy of the treatment has not been 
altogether repaired in the Supplement published, after the dic- 
tionary was finally completed, in 1928. Yet my frequent wonder 
is not that the O.E.D. contains occasional sins of omission or 
commission, but that there are not a hundred times as many, con- 
sidering the frightful size of the task that the editors set them- 
selves. 

And now, as I write these last words, proofs of a new book 
of mine arrive and I notice that the printer has queried the 
adjective protocatarctical — ‘ the protocatarctical cause of the 
Trojan War was the apple inscribed “To the Fairest” which Eris 
rolled at the feet of the three Goddesses at the marriage feast of 
Peleus and Thetis.’ Turning to the O.E.D. to check the spelling, 

I find that the word, which I first met in some seventeenth- 
century pamphlet or other — but which.^ — is not given. I consult 
the Greek Lexicon and confirm the existence of an adjective 
catarcticos^ from which protocatarctical would be correctly 
formed to mean, as I meant it to mean, ‘of the very first begin- 
nings’. There is no synonym of the same resonance and I do not 
propose to search for one. The question is: whether my author- 
ity will be considered reputable enough for the inclusion of this 
handy word in future editions, or whether protocatarctical will 
be allowed to die again after a brief airing. 

I remember that when I stayed with Thomas Hardy in 1920 
he complained to me: ‘Yesterday I was not quite sure of a rustic 
word which I wanted to use in a poem, and once again found 
myself at a loss: because the only authority quoted for it in the 
Oxford English Dictionary was my own “Under the Greenwood 
Tree, 1872”.’ 


[196] 



THEFT 


T here are many forms of theft: some tolerable and even 

praiseworthy, some dubious, some reprehensible, some 

quite intolerable. The ethical aspect has been confused by 

the simplified definition that the Law is forced to make of theft: 

namely, the unauthorized removal from others of such property 

as has market value. The penalty imposed varies, roughly, with 

the market value of the stolen goods. In England, once, the 

theft of property having the value of five shillings or over was a 

capital crime. (Merciful juries sometimes reckoned a stolen 

guinea as worth only four shillings and elevenpence.) The Law 

has now been softened, but market value still remains the ruling 

consideration. There are others: whether the thief is a first 

offender, or a minor, and whether the theft was accompanied by 

violence. But two even more fundamental considerations play 

surprisingly little part in the assessment of crime: the degree of 

distress caused to the victim, and the question of title, which the 

very fact that thieves exist proves to be an ambiguous concept. 

The thief who snatches a woman’s handbag from a counter 

purse, keys, glasses, private letters, shopping list and all — is likely 

to cause far more acute distress than the thief who abstracts a 

lesser work of art from a public gallery. Yet the difference in 

gaol-sentence, if both are caught, may be between weeks and 

years; though the first thief has violently challenged the woman’s 

confidence in the fact of possession, whereas the second is 

merely playing a game of chance with an object that seems 
attached to nobody in particular. 

Mental annoyance, like the ‘sentimental’ value of stolen 
objects, cannot be easily assessed. The Law will dispute that a 
gold-headed rane, an exact replica of which could be made for a 
tew pounds, is worth a hundred times that amount to its owner 

[*97] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


because it once belonged to his grandfather. As for the theft of 
non-marketable intangibilia^ the Law is admittedly equipped to 
deal only with economic values, not with emotional ones. Though 
a wife or husband may be awarded monetary compensation for 
stolen affections, this will represent the economic loss incidental 
to loss of love, rather than loss of love itself. 

Three main kinds of thief are to be distinguished: the thief 
who prides himself on confounding property distinctions, stealing 
for the sensation of power it gives him; the thief who is ashamed 
of his thefts; and the thief who neither knows nor admits that he 
is a criminal, stealing from mere vagueness of property-sense. 

Dillinger, and his gun-moll Bonny Parker, American Public 
Enemies of the 1920’s, took pride in their thieving. They 
robbed from the rich and did not adopt the Robin Hood practice 
of sharing their spoils with the poor; the act of daring was a 
sufficient end and justification for them. Such major theft, on 
account of which the practitioner accepts outlawry and often 
becomes a hero of ballad literature, should be distinguished from 
minor stealing by swindle, which is simple effrontery within the 
social scheme. Swindlers make no positive attacks on property, 
but avail themselves of weaknesses in the laws framed for pro- 
tecting property. If these laws were foolproof, the swindler 
would presumably be an honest man: his daring is in the comic, 
rather than the heroic, vein. The notorious Horatio Bottomley 
belonged to this class and, among his intimates, was jocularly 
proud of it. (‘Suckers have to learn their lesson!’) An office- 
boy once came up before him, charged with stealing a one-and- 
sixpenny postal order from an entry to a John Bull competition. 
Bottomley remarked in an indulgent aside; ‘Well, I suppose he 
has to begin somewhere' 

The second kind of thief is instanced by the well-dressed 
shoplifter, who figures regularly in the news and often faints for 
shame when charged — the impulsive thief who cannot account 
for the act even to herself, except as a temporary loss of her 
social sense. A vision of luxury seduced her for the moment; 
yet in a normal frame of mind she has always respected her 
economic limitations. 

The thief who neither knows nor admits that he is a thief 
seldom comes into court. And this is the most dangerous sort, 
because the market value of his stolen property cannot be 

[198] 



THEFT 


economically assessed: he is the thief of his neighbour’s privacy, 
patience, time, energies, and of his very identity. How are such 
thefts licenced? By the general axiom that man, being a gre- 
garious creature, enjoys, or should enjoy, casual visits from his 
neighbour whenever he is not ill, engaged in making love, or 
working concentratedly at his trade or profession. He is held 
to have stored up a certain amount of social pleasantness, and 
this he must share with his fellow-creatures when they are impelled 
to call on him by a vague feeling of self-insufficiency — with 
which they also credit him. Like themselves, he must need 
‘company’. Thus they are following the conventions of social 
interchange: being neither decently interested in his personal 
problems, nor willing to accept any burden of responsibility 
towards him. This neighbour-dogma is added to the theory that 
all aberrations from normal behaviour are ‘news’ and therefore 
public property (social pleasantness heightened to social excite- 
ment); the person who first secures the news, far from being a 
thief, is entitled to a reward from the news-hungry public. 
Indeed, nine out of every ten people are willing to share them- 
selves with the public to a most generous extent — the hatchet- 
slayer summons the reporters and asks anxiously: ‘This is front- 
page stuff, isn’t it?’ 

Neighbour-dogma is strongly held by country people, for 
whom any refusal by a newcomer to go further than ‘good- 
morning’ and ‘good-evening’, when amicably greeted in the 
shop or post office, constitutes a social danger; and his privacy 
will be assailed in a hostile, though surreptitious, way. Yet 
once he has admitted the first caller (the local parson) inside the 
house, his time and energies will be at the mercy of all neigh- 
bours belonging to the same social class, who feel entitled to 
share his humanity. And in the city, where nobody is expected 
to know even the occupants of the flat above, or the flat below, 
there is always the State — brusquely presenting itself, on one 
bureaucratic pretext or another, with inspections, demands, 
subpoenas, and forms to be completed. Such thefts of time and 
energy are excused on the plea that everyone is a member of the 
State and enjoys a claim on the attentions of all fellow-members; 
the assumption of social community being based on that of 
national community. If a private citizen feels victimized by 
thievish officialdom, the remedy is held to lie in his own hands 

o [199] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


as a national or municipal voter. Furthermore, continuous thefts 
are committed in the name of Business, Politics, Charity- 
invasions of privacy, draining of energy, wasting of time, legi- 
timized by an extension of the neighbour-dogma. That this 
organized theft is hardly ever challenged, suggests that few 
people still consider themselves private individuals. 

The question of what may rightly be called one’s inalienable 
own, safe from encroachment, grows most confused in the case 
of private amenities. According to the democratic view, each 
of us may control his immediate surroundings to a reasonable 
extent, only the too ‘particular’ people being regarded as freaks 
and troublemakers. Between one person and another a no-man’s- 
land of property is assumed to exist, over which neither has any 
special control. And if we dislike the new buildings going up 
along a favourite old street of ours, the sole grounds on which 
we are allowed to protest are those of impersonal artistic taste; 
though entitled to our private opinion, we can claim no right to 
be consulted. The favourite old street is ‘ours’ only in a manner 
of speaking. Its architectural effect must be regarded as public 
property subject to our control through the municipal system 
alone; our personal reactions as individual citizens do not, and 
cannot, interest this remote and stubborn authority. 

Few even of our purely local amenities are protected by Law. 

A successful action might perhaps be brought, on economic 
grounds, against the planting of a glue-factory next door to a 
tea-garden, or of a kennels next door to a hospital for psycho- 
paths; and the Law does take cognizance of ‘ancient lights’. But 
no remedy can be found against the spoiling of the view from 
one’s rural sitting-room by the erection of a gas-works or a neo- 
Gothic castle. Nor can a neighbour be prevented from raising 
a tall structure in his garden which will command a view of our 
own and thus destroy its privacy; unless his actions when posted 
there are noisy, offensive, or menacing. Again, though we may 
sue a neighbour for stealing flowers from our garden (and 
recover their market value), we are powerless against him if he 
steals the affections of our cat by giving it richer food than we 
choose to give it at home. Actions have been successfully 
brought against fashion-pirates who make surreptitious sketches 
of new models at a private pre-view; but can a woman prosecute 
a neighbour who plagiarizes her individual way of dressing and 

[200] 



THEFT 


thus steals from her the sense of looking fastidiously like herself? 
I may sue a publisher for an infringement of copyright, but not 
a man who tells my favourite story or joke as his own, and thus 
steals from me the peculiar flavour of w^t that is part of my social 
identity. An inventor may sue a manufacturing company for 
an infringement of patent, but what remedy have I against an 
acquaintance who copies the interior decoration of my house 
and thus steals the dignity of its uniqueness? 

Private taste is, in fact, at the mercy of public depredation. 
If we enjoy a particular view, we cannot prevent its being spoilt, 
precisely because our liking rests on taste, not on mere material 
considerations. If we fancy a particular combination of colours 
and express it in the decoration of our sitting-room, we are 
powerless to prevent a visitor from imitating what can be des- 
cribed as ‘only a matter of taste’: the sensibilities associated with 
taste being too subtle for recognition in the register of public 
property. We do not really own the view on which we have 
bestowed thoughtful choice when we designed the house, and 
which has played an important part in our local orientation; nor 
do we own that thoughtfully devised sitting-room colour- 
scheme. We possess no more than a taste for a certain kind of 
view, or a taste for a certain colour-scheme. Our consolation 
must be that this taste cannot be taken from us by even the 
cleverest of thieves. 

Two proverbs licensing plagiarism are " de minimis non curat 
lex " — which implies that people must not make a fuss about 
petty theft so long as the police protect the house from burglary; 
and ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’ — which implies 
that the object of adopting certain peculiarities in dress or house- 
hold furnishings is to call attention to oneself, or to influence 
others, rather than to be oneself as simply and honestly as 
possible. If imitation were said to be the sincerest form of 
respect, this proverb might easily be refuted. But the sneer 
conveyed by ‘flattery’ imposes a shamed silence. ‘Perhaps,’ one 

thinks, ‘I have, after all, been over-demonstrative, even a little 
theatrical.’ 

It is commonly supposed that a crowd cannot be reduced to a 
single integer by a process of division. I find this untrue: the 
integer of the crowd is the thief. Crowds will gather outside a 
church at the close of a wedding, or outside a hospital when an 

[201] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 

ambulance drives up, with thievish anxiety to steal the private 
feelings of the principals. Crowds are nourished by the theory 
that everyone has a share in certain common possessions. But 
these common possessions are so vague in substance that the 
collective sense of ownership remains unsatisfied; and the crowd 
swoops down on any available private experience or entity and 
claims it thievishly for its own. News is one manifestation of 
this methodical thieving; fashion, the pseudo-honourable con- 
vention by which something private is publicized, is another. 
But what of the original inventor.^ The fashions which the 
crowd adopts are never original inventions, always vulgarizations 
of such inventions by some super-thief. The super-thief has a 
keen eye for what is ‘different’ and knows how to convert the 
different into the stylish, or the topical, shrewdly by-passing the 
laborious processes by which the different was achieved. He 
would not reproduce the original even if he could; his sole interest 
lies in reproducing its ‘atmosphere*. Most public characters, 
from dictators downwards, must be counted among these super- 
thieves, and stand in need of the three qualities demanded from 
the Elizabethan pick-pocket — an eagle’s eye, a lion’s heart, a 
lady’s hand. 

But: ‘Isn’t everyone a thief.^’ We must concede the existence, 
if not of an immediate, collective property, at least of a common 
stock, or ‘cultural inheritance*, on which even the most inventive 
mind must draw. The inventor of the phosphorus-match, for 
example, merely combined two earlier discoveries — the tinder- 
box and the ignitability of phosphorus by friction. A woman 
with an individual sense of clothes rarely weaves her own dress- 
materials, or designs the buttons, or the jewels, or the gloves. 
The most original poet starts with a given language and certain 
inherited metrical conventions. That there is nothing new under 
the sun is a sweeping consolation to the uninventive and would, 
if true, be a justification for theft. But it is not true. Though 
a common historical background certainly exists, yet what we 
individually do, or are, today implies specific additions to and 
manipulations of this background. The crowd has a collective 
claim on the past, but not on the present. No living person can 
be collectivized, except by means of what he voluntarily contri- 
butes to the common stock: which is not himself, but only a 
statement about himself in relation to society. Such a statement 

[202] 



THEFT 


may help others to understand their own problems; but a man’s 
way of being is as uniquely private as his handwriting, his 
features, or his gait. There are, admittedly, millions of people 
whose subservience to a conventional pattern has made them 
resemble one another very closely; yet however slight the differ- 
ences between them, every one is to some extent an original, not 
a thief, until he merges with the crowd. 


What theft, then, is legitimate.^ The culling of property never 
individually owned, or temporarily without an individual owner 
— the raw material of living — is not stealing. Buttons and 
accessories, for example, are on sale in a great variety of materials, 
colours, and patterns. A woman carefully picks a certain set of 
buttons and a certain trimming to suit a dress that she has in 
mind, the cloth for which was also carefully chosen from a shop 
counter. No theft there. Theft occurs only when someone 
deliberately appropriates the effect of a neighbour’s dress, dis- 
regarding its personal associations. Accidental thefts may 
occur by a coincidental similarity in circumstances; but more 
often they are due to the lazy indecisiveness of a mind on 

which impressions of things seen or heard exert an hypnotic 
power. 


Nature provides convenient symbols of the legitimate and the 
illegitimate thief; the illegitimate being the cuckoo, who saves 
herself the trouble of nest-building and the care of her young; 
the legitimate being the hermit-crab, who uses discarded sea- 
shells to cover his unprotected softer parts. The jackdaw is a 
doubtful case. He steals in a haphazard and irresponsible way, 
cheerfully decorating his nest with whatever bright object can 
be carried off safely — a bit of broken glass, or a diamond ear- 
ring left near an open window. The cuckoo must, we assume, 
be vividly conscious that she is stealing, whereas the jackdaw is 
seduced by vanity; we could hardly accuse him of deliberate 
intent to steal. Literary thieves are usually viewed, with indul- 
gence, as jackdaws: literature being presumed to be a necessarily 
jackdawish profession. ^ 

Stealing, nevertheless, brings its own punishment. No one 
with sensibility enough to realize that he is a thief will be perma- 
nently content in the ownership of stolen goods; though an 
outlaw may try to be romantic about it. 




THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


Furto cuncta magis bella^ 

Furto dulcior puella^ 

Furto omnia decora^ 

Furto poma dulciora. 

But can any integral part of one’s life really get stolen? If a 
literary style, or a way of dressing, may be so exactly reproduced 
that there is nothing to choose between copy and original, can 
we be sure that the original was, after all, unique — and not a 
mere collection of commonplaces? Objects of sentimental value, 
too, may be tokens of either clear or uncertain memories. If of 
clear memories, then the object may be regarded as a super- 
fluity; if of uncertain memories, then it is still less integral a 
possession. 

Love remains the greatest single power that recruits thieves. 
Love in its popular sense, I mean — the desire to take complete 
possession. Such love leads many an otherwise honest man to 
imitate the ways of his beloved so closely that he hopes to 
appear her second self: her favourite flowers, sonp, poems, 
colours, and places will be his favourites, and his objects in life 
male parodies of her female ones. This swindling technique of 
love must be distinguished from the robbery with violence 
glorified in melodramatic novels, but rarely resorted to in prac- 
tice. If the swindler succeeds in winning a woman’s affections, 
there has probably been swindling on both sides: an association 
of two thieves results, each happy in the possession of the other’s 
purse. Jealous love denotes rage that some property of the 
beloved has evaded theft; for instance, former friendships, or 
occupations, or her affection for a favourite dog or cat. Old 
successfully married couples often acquire a common gait, a 
common smile, and even a common handwriting. They have 
almost ceased to exist as individuals; and all that they have stolen 
from each other and held in common pool becomes synthetic 
mediocrity. 

In art and literature, thefts are sometimes due to possessive 
love; if not sexual love, then disciple-love. The victim may feci 
embarrassed and annoyed, as a woman feels when a sudden 
stranger lays his heart at her feet. But since social custom 
demands that she shall pretend compassion in such a case, rather 
than express her boredom or annoyance, so with disciple-love 



THEFT 


which takes the form of a close imitation of style or matter. The 
victim seldom says, as he should: ‘Run away, thief, and manage 
with what you have!’ This may be because he himself began 
as a thief, and looks upon such stealing wistfully, as a wholesome 
characteristic of youth. Nor is disciple-love the only cause for 
plagiarism. It is more often prompted by an envious desire for 
reputation: the thief naively reckoning that if he can outdo tlie 
master in his own field he himself will then be the famous one. 
Sometimes it may be prompted by light-hearted experimentation: 
‘How does it feel to write or paint like So-and-So, and then like 
So-and-So.^’ 

The prevalence of thieving forces an almost morbid con- 
scientiousness on naturally honest persons, or on thieves con- 
verted to honesty by dissatisfaction with their spoils. That a 
friend owns a green tea-set argues against my buying a green 
tea-set myself; even of a different shade and design, and even if 
green is the colour that I should have liked. If I discover that the 
two operative words in a line of my own also occur in a line 
written by someone else, I instantly cancel them, even if the 
sense I have conveyed is completely different, and even if the 
words in question are the most natural ones for me to use. The 
Chinese have a proverb commending such scrupulousness: 
‘When passing through a neighbour’s orange-grove, do not 
pause to lace your hat; when passing through his melon-patch, 
do not stoop to lace your shoe.’ 

But whose conscience is ever quite clear.^ And how could it 
ever be.^ My mind, at least, is not card-indexed. I may even 
have stolen a commonplace or two in composing this pure- 
hearted homily. 


[205] 



KYNGE ARTHUR IS NAT DEDE 


S OMETHING can be done with Agamemnon and Menelaus as 
historical characters. I find no insuperable objections to the 
belief that they led a mixed armada of Greek-speaking 
warriors against Troy towards the close of the second millen- 
nium B.c. Certainly, Homer's account of these events is not 
always satisfactory, if only because he flourished after the Dorian 
Confederacy had laid Mycenae and Sparta in ruins. Something 
also can be done with Roland and Oliver as historical characters, 
despite the obvious inflation of the Roncevalles story; their liege 
lord Charlemagne is a dateable king, and I am ready to believe 
that a rearguard action was fought by raiders against the Moors 
who threatened his Pyrenean frontier. The German Dietrich 
saga may read crazily, but its central character the Emperor 
Theoderic did exist, and certain faint historical outlines can be 
recognized in the saga, which at least seems all of a piece. But 
what can be done with King Arthur, a key-figure in English 
poetic tradition? 

Though Arthur is described as King of the Britons, leader of 
a group of knights fighting in fifteenth-century armour and 
sworn to the eleventh-century Provencal code of chivalry, he 
can be identified with no post-Conquest English sovereign. 
Among his enemies are the kings of Ireland, Denmark, Orkney, 
and Brittany; and an emperor of Rome, named Lucius, whose 
territories correspond with the Roman Empire at its maximum 
second-century extension. Yet Arthur's chief strongholds are 
Camelot (Winchester) and Caerlleon-upon-Usk, Roman camps 
abandoned when the legions were withdrawn from Britain; and 
he checks the advance of certain pagan Saxons whom wicked 
King Vortigern has invited to Britain. In his youth, after col- 
lecting the ritual token of royalty, a sword, in the precise manner 
of King Theseus of Athens, he is acclaimed the lost heir of 

[206] 



KYNGE ARTHUR IS NAT DEDE 

Uther Pendragon, Ruler of Britain; and presently takes part in 
the Battle of Badon Hill, which is agreed to have been fought 
about A.D. 520. He inherits Uther’s prerogative (as Dux Britan- 
niarurri) of flying a Red Dragon standard in battle. This standard 
which has since become the Dra Goch of Wales, oddly connects 
King Arthur with the Far East. The Chinese Dragon Standard, 
with its pocket-like body of vermilion silk and its gaping jaws, 
was borrowed by the Byzantines from their Hunnish archer allies, 
to serve a dual purpose: as a rallying point, and as a wind- 
indicator like the pocket-flags one sees on airfields. A glance 
at the standard on a gusty day told the archers how much to 
allow for deflection. The device must have reached Britain 
before the Romans left. 

Arthur then fights the mythical Giant of St Michael’s Mount, 
the Great Cat of Losane and the terrific Twrch Trwyth (in Latin, 
the Porcus Troit) and sails in his magic ship Prydwen to harry 
a pagan Hell from which, in pure Bronze Age style, he carries 
off an enchanted cauldron. He is buried in the Isle of Avalon 
(or Glastonbury), where the monks later disinter his gigantic 
bones from an oak-coffin burial which dates him about 1500 b.c. 
However, the inscription on the coffin, in monkish Latin, states 
that: ‘Arthur King of the Britons and his wife Guinevere lie 
here.’ Giraldus Cambrensis saw this coffin and so did Edward I. 
Yet an ancient Welsh Triad insists that Arthur’s grave will never 
be found; and this corresponds with a legend current in various 
parts of South Wales that he lies asleep in a cave with a golden 
crown on his head, whence he will emerge only to rescue his 
‘honey isle’ from foreign oppression. Similarly, the Scottish 
King Arthur occupies a hidden cave in the Eildon Hills, whence 
he will emerge only when someone finds and blows the trumpet 
he lost in his last battle thereabouts. And as a child I was taken 
to the top of a hill near Snowdon and told that this was where 
the usurping Modred dealt King Arthur his mortal wound, and 
that when seven church steeples could be seen from there, and 
when a pair of twins, a boy and a girl, went looking for lost lambs 
on a Sunday afternoon they would find King Arthur’s dinted 
crown rolled away under a bush of bracken. 

In the Middle Ages Arthur was the object of deep and sincere 
belief. Caxton writes in his preface to Sir Thomas Malory’s 
Morte <P Arthuri 

[207] 



THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


In hym that shold say or thynke that there was never suche a 
kyng callyd Arthur myght wel be aretted grete folye and blynde- 
nesse, for there be many evydences of the contrarye. Fyrst, ye 
may see his sepulture in the monasterye of Glastynburye; and 
also in Polycronycon^ in the fifth book the syxte chappytre, and 
in the seventh book, the twenty-thyrd chappytre, where his 
body was buryed and after founded and translated into the said 
monasterye. Ye shal se also in the ystory of Bochas, in his 
book De Casu Principium, parte of his noble actes, and also of 
his falle. Also Galfrydus, in his Brytysshe book, recounteth his 
lyf. And in dyvers places of Englond many remembraunces 
ben yet of hym and shall remayne perpetuelly, and also of his 
knyghtes: fyrst, in the abbey of Westmestre, at Saint Edwardes 
shryne, remayneth the prynte of his seal in reed waxe, closed in 
beryll, in which is wryton patricius arthurus britannie 
GALLIE GERMANIE DACIE IMPERATOR; item, in the castel of Dover 
ye may se Gauwayns skulle and Cradoks mantel; at W}’nchester, 
the Rounde Table; in other places Launcelottes swerde and many 
other th} nges. 


The best, in fact, that we can do with King Arthur is to accept 
him as a national obsession, and his paradoxes as peculiarly 
insular. He was anointed King by an archbishop and wore a 
cross on his shield; yet his sponsor was Merlin the Enchanter, 
begotten on a nun by the Devil himself, and according to the 
Taliesin poems in The Red Book of Hergest: ‘erudite druids 
prophesied for Arthur.’ And though he permitted a few knights 
of the Round Table — those with beautiful Germanic souls and 
a pleasure in living virginally on bread and water — to ride off in 
quest of the Holy Grail, he himself never joined them. Living 
heartily in feasting, hunting, bold bawdry and open manslaughter, 
he attended church parade like an Edwardian cavalry colonel, 
largely to set his captains and other ranks a good example. Then 
why this assemblage of authenticated religious relics, as though 
Arthur had been Christ; and Launcelot, Peter; and Gawain, 


John the Evangelist.^ 

The truth is this: Arthur had long been converted into a 
counter-Christ, with twelve knights of the Round Table to 
suggest the Twelve Apostles, and with a Second Coming. For 
though the seigneurial class consented to fight for the Cross as 
an emblem of Western civilization, the ascetic morality preached 
by Jesus did not appeal to them in the least. Jesus’s grave 



KYNGE ARTHUR IS NAT DEDE 


warning that ‘he who lives by the sword shall perish by the 
sword’ was read as a joyful reassurance to the true knight that 
if he always observed the code of chivalry he would die gloriously 
in battle, and be translated to a Celtic Paradise in the twinkling 
of an eye. Moreover, the Western conception of personal 
honour could not be reconciled with humility, turning the other 
cheek, and leaving God to avenge injuries. The concept of 
knight-errantry would have made poor sense in Israel. I recall 
no distressed damsels in the entire Bible, the heroes all being 
national deliverers, not individual adventurers. When an ancient 
Israelite fought in God’s name, he fought ruthlessly: thrusting 
women through the belly with his javelin, dashing the little ones 
against the stones, and smiting the infirm or aged with the edge 
of the sword — churlish behaviour for which an Arthurian knight 
would have had his spurs lopped off by the common hangman. 
And the Israelite was realistic about yielding to superior force 
and allowing himself to be led away captive; not so the true 
knight. Sir Accolon would have killed Arthur with: 

many grete strokes, and for the moste party every stroke Accolon 
gaff wounded him full sore. And always King Arthur loste so 
much blood that hit was marvayle he stode upon his feete, but 
he was so full of knighthode that he endured the payne. And 
his swerde braste at the cross and felle on the grasse among the 
blood, and when he saw that, he was in grete feare to dye. 

However, he would not yield: 

for I promised by the feythe of my body to do this batayle to the 
uttermost whyle my lyff lastith, and therefore I had liver to dye 
with honour than to lyve with shame. 

So Arthur fought on with shield and sword pummel until the 
Damsel of the Lake disarmed Sir Accolon by magic; whereupon 
Arthur won the advantage, but generously spared Sir Accolon’s 
life. 

Launcelot’s love for Guinevere is altogether un-Christian. He 
loved her truly and was found ‘togyders abed with her in her 
chamber*. Later he rescued Guinevere from the fire to which 
she had been condemned by Arthur ‘and kept her as a good 
knight should’. After Arthur’s death, he repented as a matter 
of form, ‘endured grete penaunce syx yere, and then dyed’. 


THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 


And SO after mydnyght, ayenst day, the Bysshop that was 
hermyte, as he laye in his bedde aslepe, he fyl upon a grete 
laughter. And therwyrh all the felyshyp awoke and came to the 
Bysshop and asked hym what he eyled. 

J^su mercy!* sayd the Bysshop, ^why dyd ye awake me? 
I was never in all my lyf so mery and so wel at ease.* 

‘Wherfore?* sayd syr Bors. 

‘Truly,* sayd the Bysshop, ‘here was syr Launcelot with me, 
TV' ith mo angellis that ever I sawe men in one day. And I sawe 
the angellys heve up syr Layncelot unto heven, and the yates 
of heven opened ayenst hym.* 

Arthur, of course, had no right to complain of having been 
cuckolded by Launcelot; he had himself begotten Modred on 
King Mark’s queen in her husband’s absence, similarly claiming 
that he could not resist the pangs of true love — though, according 
to some writers, the queen was his own sister. 

Whenever the merchant and artisan classes turn Lollards or 
Levellers and repudiate the chivalrous tradition. King Arthur is 
publicized as a national hero. Milton would doubtless have 
written his projected Arthurian Epic in this sense at the time of 
the Great Rebellion, but for the unknightly thoughts which an 
unhappy marriage bred in his mind, forcing him to desert the 
Cavalier cause. He turned Hebrew prophet instead. Eventually 
Tennyson versified the legends in his Idylls of the King^ as a 
means of strengthening the throne against Chartism and the 
chapels; but compromised sadly by introducing a heavy atmo- 
sphere of guilt and scandal into Malory’s straightforward story 
of Launcelot and Guinevere. The ‘manner of love in King 
Arthur’s days’ was therefore generally repudiated until William 
Morris wrote The Defence of Guinevere; since when the bonds 
of Christian marriage have become less and less burdensome to 
knight and lady. Thus the Briton’s counter-Bible is the Morte 
D' Arthur^ here for the first time available at a popular price in 
the best text,* that of the Winchester College MS. 

Sir Thomas Malory, the author, was an eccentric Warwickshire 
Knight who served at the siege of Calais in 1436, sat in Parlia- 
ment nine years later, and then began a career of knight-errantry 
for which he suffered eight terms of imprisonment before his 

* The W^orks of Sir Thomas Malory^ edited by Eugene Vinaver. Geoffrey 
Cumberlege, Oxford University Press, 1954, 21s. 

[210] 



KYNGE ARTHUR IS NAT DEDE 

death at Newgate in 1471. The charges against him were cattle- 
raiding, rifling the Abbey of Blessed Mary of Combe, and twice 
forcing the wife of one Hugh Smyth — but Guinevere probably 
told Arthur that she had been twice forced by Launcelot. Malory 
makes no historical sense of King Arthur, but unifies the scattered 
legends in so masterly a fashion that their very contradictions 
and miracles give them almost gospel authority; justifying his 
faith that: ‘Kynge Arthur is nat dede but shall come agayne/ 
Shakespeare, another Warwickshire man, understood all this 
perfectly. He places the departed soul of his favourite knight- 
errant — a renowned leader and swordsman who loved feasting, 
drinking, adultery and the panoply of war — ‘neither in Heaven 
nor in Hell . , . but in Arthur’s bosom, if ever man went to 
Arthur’s bosom.’ 


DR SYNTAX AND MR POUND 


(prompted by The Poet as Translator^ 

The Times Literary Supplement^ 

Sept. i8, 1953.)* 

DR syntax: Now for our Propertius translation, boys. This 
morning we begin with the lines: 

Multi^ Roma^ tuas laudes annalibus addent 
Qui finem imperii Bactra futura canent. 

Sed^ quod pace legas^ opus hoc de monte Sororum 
Detulit Intacta pagina nostra via. 

{Dr Syntax consults his teachers^ crib., which reads: ^ Multi ^ 
Roma., many men, O Rome, addent^ shall add, tuas laudes 
annalibus., praises of thee to the annals, qui canent, prophesying, 
Bactra futura^ that Bactria shall form, imperii finem., thine 
imperial frontier [i.e. that the Parthian empire shall be 
absorbed], sed., hut, pagina nostra., my page, detulit, has brought 
down, hoc opus, this work, de monte Sororum, from the moun- 
tain of the Sisters [i.e. the Muses of Parnassus], via intactd, 
by an untrodden path, quod legas pace, for thee to read in 
time of peace [i.e. I alone have not joined the cavalcade of 
popular war poets].* He sighs and looks about himl) 

THE boys: Only to the bottom of the page. Dr Syntax, Sir. 

DR syntax: Ha! Very well. Let me see! Whom shall I put on 
to construe first.^ Surely our celebrated transatlantic scholar 
Ezra Pound who only yesterday, perhaps inspired by George 
Borrow*s felicitous pseudo-translations from the Armenian and 
Polish, distinguished himself by rendering 

Unde pater sitiens Ennius ante bibit 

as if sitiens meant ‘sitting*, not ‘a-thirst*. Quiet, boys, no 
merriment! Come on, Pound; my Fabian liira of twelve 

* Quotations from the T.L.S. eulogy of Pound are here printed in 

CAPITAl. LETTERS. 

[212] 



DR SYNTAX AND MR POUND 

asses in one, ha, ha! I can see you are yearning to outdo 
yourself. 

POUND (virtuously): Please, Dr Syntax, Sir! I have translated 
the whole passage into free verse. I call it Homage to Sextus 
Propertius^ Sir. 

DR SYNTAX: Eh, what.^ How very industrious and thoughtful of 
you ! Proceed ! We are all attention. 

POUND (declaims): 

Annalists will continue to record Roman reputations. 
Celebrities from the Trans-Caucasus will belaud Roman 
celebrities 

And expound the distentions of Empire, 

But for something to read in normal circumstances? 

For a few pages brought down from the forked hill unsullied? 

DR. SYNTAX: BREATHTAKING MAGNIFICENCE, Pound, BRILLIANT 
PARAPHRASES. I am delighted that you scorn to use Kelly's 
Keys to the Classics, You are, I see, deliberately distorting 

THE STRICT SENSE IN ORDER TO BRING OUT VIVIDLY PROPER- 
TIUS s LATENT IRONY. I would go farther: I would say that 
you have expanded a facile and rather petty pair of elegiac 
couplets into what must surely prove to be a durable 

ADDITION TO, AND INFLUENCE UPON, ORIGINAL POETRY IN 
THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE IN THIS CENTURY. But, pray, WOuld 

you be kind enough, for the benefit of the slower-witted 
members of the Fourth Form, to give a literal, unpadded, 
word-for-word translation of the Latin, however bald? I 
suspect that ‘celebrities from the trans-caucasus ’ are a 

BRIGHT NOTION OF POUND's OWN, SUGGESTED PERHAPS BY 
THE SINGLE WORD BACTRA? 

POUND: O, no, Dr Syntax, Sir. Please, Sir, it goes like this. 
Multi tuas laudes^ many of your praises, Roma^ O Rome, 
addent annalibus, will be added by annalists, qui, who, Bactra 
futura, being Bactrians of the future (this is a bit like Macaulay’s 
New Zealander, isn’t it, Sir.^), canent^ will sing, fines imperii^ 
about your fine empire. Sed^ but, quod,, what about, legas^ 
reading matter, pace hoc opus,, when all this work is at peace? 
And then in apposition, Sir: via, a few, intacta pagind, un- 
sullied pages, detulit, brought down, de monte Sororum, from 
the hill of Soritis (I looked it out. Sir, and it means ‘a forked 
complex of logical sophisms’). 


THE CROWNING PRIVILEGE 

DR SYNTAX; Great! This may set the academic critics all 
AGOG, but it will certainly earn you a four-column eulogy in 
The Times Literary Supplement. The anonymous reviewer 
will compare you with Marlow, and say even kinder things 
about your genius than I have dared. 

{Dreamily.') Talking of Dog-Latin, my boys, you all doubtless 
recall Virgil’s immortal lines beginning: 

V ere novo gelidus canis sub montibus umor 
Liquitur . . . 

Unlike good Citizen Pound, I claim no talent for free verse, 
but I think I can knock up a pretty fair Shakespearean line: 
V ere novo, Strange yet how true, gelidus canis, the dog with 
chills and fevers, sub montibus liquitur. Makes water at the lofty 
mountain’s foot, umor. For a mere jest. Silence, boys, or I 
shall give you a hundred lines apiece! And while I am on the 
subject of discipline, my Foundling, let me remind you to 
visit my study tonight after school prayers; and mind you, 
fili dilectissime, no padding — ha, ha! 

POUND (^mutters vindictively)'. Pedant, Jew, pluto-democratic 
usurer ! 


[214] 



SIXTEEN NEW POEMS 


THE CLEARING 

ALove this bramble-overarched long lane 
Where an autochthonous owl flits to and fro 
In silence, 

Above these tangled trees — their roots encumbered 
By strawberries, mushrooms, pignuts, flowers’ and weeds’ 
Exuberance — 

The planetary powers gravely observe 
With what dumb patience 
You stand at twilight in despair of love. 

Though the twigs crackling under a light foot 
Declare her immanence. 


p 


[215] 



A LOST JEWEL 


Who on your breast pillows his head now, 

Jubilant to have won 

The heart beneath on fire for him alone, 

At dawn will hear you, plagued by nightmare, 
Mumble and weep 

About some blue jewel you were sworn to keep. 

Wake, blink, laugh out in reassurance. 

Yet your tears will say; 

‘ It was not mine to lose or give away. 

‘For love it shone — never for the madness 
Of a strange bed — 

Light on my finger, fortune in my head.’ 

Roused by your naked grief and beauty. 

For lust he will burn: 

‘Turn to me, sweetheart! Why do you not turn.^’ 



THE THREE PEBBLES 

(In thirty of these burials^ the black deposit of fragmentised pots 
contained a small white quarts p^b^b>le associated with two pieces of 
alien ware^ one red porphyry^ the other a greenish stone, probably 
porphyry also. Their presence was clearly intentional — Proceedings 
of the Cumberland and Westmorland Archeological Society, 
New Series, vol. xiv.) ’ 

Is red the ghost of green? and green, of red? 

And white, the impartial light upon them shed? 

And I, my own twin warring against me? 

Then, woman, take two jewels of porphyry, 

Well matched in weight, one green, one angry red; 

To light them with yourself, a pure moon-crystal, 

And lay them on my bier when I am dead. 




THE QUESTION 


Possibly is no monosyllable; 

Then answer me, 

At once if possible, 
Monosyllabically; 

No will be good, yes even better 
Though longer by one letter. 

Possibly is no monosyllable. 
And my heart flies shut 
At the warning rumble 
Of a suspended But . - . ; 

O love, be brief and exact 
In confession of simple fact! 



THE WINDOW SILL 


Presage and caveat not only seem 
To come in dream, 

But do so come in dream. 

When the cock crew and phantoms floated by. 

This dreamer I 

Out of the house went I, 

Down long unsteady streets to a mad square; 
And who was there, 

Or whom did I know there? 

Julia, leaning on her window sill. 

T love you still,’ 

Said she, ‘ O love me still ! ’ 

I answered: ‘Julia, do you love me best?’ 

‘What of this breast,’ 

She mourned, ‘this flowery breast?’ 

Then a wild sobbing spread from door to door, 
And every floor 

Cried shame on every floor, 

As she unlaced her bosom to disclose 
Each breast a rose, 

A white and cankered rose. 




THE SEA HORSE 


Since now in every public place 

Lurk phantoms who assume your walk and face, 

You cannot yet have utterly abjured me 
■ Or stifled the insistent roar of sea. 

Do as I do: confide your unquiet love 
(For one that never owed you less than love) 

To this indomitable hippocamp, 

Child of your element, coiled a-ramp, 

Having ridden out worse tempests than you know of; 
Under his horny ribs a blood-red stain 
Portends the renewal of our pain. 

Sweetheart, make much of him and shed 
Tears on his taciturn dry head. 



SPOILS 


When all is over and you march for home, 

The spoils of war are easily disposed of: 

Standards, weapons of combat, helmets, drums 
May decorate a staircase or a study. 

While lesser gleanings of the battlefield — 

Coins, watches, wedding-rings, gold teeth and such — 
Are sold anonymously for solid cash. 

The spoils of love present a different case. 

When all is over and you march for home: 

That lock of hair, those letters and the portrait 
May not be publicly displayed; nor sold; 

Nor burned; nor returned (the heart being obstinate) — 

Yet never dare entrust them to your safe 

For fear they burn a hole through more than steel. 




BEAUTY IN TROUBLE 

Beauty in trouble flees to the good angel 
On whom she can rely 

To pay her cab-fare, run a steaming bath, 

Poultice her bruised eye; 

Will not at first, whether for shame or caution. 
Her difficulty disclose. 

Until he draws a cheque book from his plumage. 
Asking her how much she owes; 

(Breakfast in bed: coffee and marmalade. 

Toast, eggs, orange-juice. 

After a long, sound sleep — the first since when? — 
And no word of abuse.) 

Loves him less only than her saint-like mother, 
Promises to repay 

His loans and most seraphic thoughtfulness 
A million-fold one day. 

Beauty grows plump, renews her broken courage 
And, borrowing ink and pen, 

Writes a news-letter to the evil angel 
(Her first gay act since when.^): 

The fiend who beats, betrays and sponges on her, 
Persuades her white is black, 

Flaunts vespertilian wing and cloven hoof; 

And soon will fetch her back. 

Virtue, good angel, is its own reward: 

Your money was well spent. 

But would you to the marriage of true minds 
Admit impediment? 


[222] 



POETS’ CORNER 


De ambobus mundis ille 
Convoravit diligens. . . . 

The Best of Both Worlds being Got 
Between th’ Evangel and the Pot, 

He, though Exorbitantly Viced, 

Had Re-discover’d Thirst for Christ 
And Fell a Victim (Young as This) 

To Ale, God’s Love and Syphilis. 

Here then in Triumph See Him Stand, 
Laurels for Halo, Scroll in Hand, 

Whyle Ganymeds and Cherubim 
And Squabby Nymphs Rejoyce with Him: 
Aye, Scroll Shall Fall and Laurels Fade 
Long, Long before his Debts are Pay’d. 


[223] 



END OF THE WORLD 


When, at a sign, the Heavenly vault entire 
Founders and your accustomed world of men 
Drops through the fundament — too vast a crash 
To register as sound — and you plunge with it, 
Trundling, head over heels, in dark confusion 
Of trees, churches, elephants, railway trains, 
And the cascading seven seas: 

It cannot signify how deep you fall 
From everything to nothing. Nothingness 
Cushions disaster, and this much is sure; 

A buoyant couch will bear you up at last, 

Aloof, alone — but for the succuba. 



PENTHESILEIA 


Penthesileia, dead of profuse wounds. 

Was despoiled of her arms by Prince Achilles 
Who, for love of that fierce white naked corpse, 
Necrophily on her committed 
In the public view. 

Some gasped, some groaned, some bawled their indignation, 
Achilles nothing cared, distraught by grief. 

But suddenly caught Thersites’ obscene snigger 
And with one vengeful buffet to the jaw 
Dashed out his life. 

This was a fury few might understand, 

Yet Penthesileia, hailed by Prince Achilles 
On the Elysian plain, pauses to thank him 
For avenging her insulted womanhood 
With sacrifice. 




TO A PEBBLE IN MY SHOE 


I cannot pity you, 

Poor pebble in my shoe, 
Now that the heel is sore; 
You planned to be a rock 
And a stumbling block, 

Or was it perhaps more? 

But now be grateful if 
You vault over the cliff. 
Shaken from my shoe; 
Where lapidary tides 
May scour your little sides 
And even polish you. 


[226] 



THE TENANTS 


Pictures and books went off ahead this morning: 

The furniture is sold (and tells you so); 

Both trunks are packed, and seven suit-cases; 

A cat glides petulantly to and fro. 

Afraid to leave us. 

Now massive walls and stairs, for so long certain. 
Retreat and fade like a mirage at sea; 

Your room and mine lose their established meanings 
By dawn tomorrow let them cease to be 
Or to concern us ! 

We faced a scowl from window, door and fireplace. 
Even in the kitchen, when we first were here; 

It cost us years of kindness to placate them. 

But now each scowl resolves into a leer 
With which to speed us. 

How dared we struggle with a house of phantoms, 
Soaked in ill luck.^ And when we go away, 
Confess, can you and I be certain whether 
The ghost of our unhappiness will stay 
Or follow with us.^ 



CORONATION ADDRESS 


I remember, Ma’am, a frosty morning 
When I was five years old and brought ill news. 
Marching solemnly upstairs with the paper 
Like an angel of doom; knocked gently. 

‘Father, The Times has a black border. Look! 

The Queen is dead.’ 

Then I grew scared 

When big tears started, ran down both his cheeks 
To hang glistening in the red-grey beard — 

A sight I have never seen before. 

My mother thought to comfort him, leaned closer. 
Whispering softly: ‘ It was a ripe old age . . . 

She saw her century out.’ The tears still flowed, 

He could not find his voice. My mother ventured: 
‘We have a King once more, a real King. 

“God Save the King” is in the Holy Bible. 

Our Queen was, after all, only a woman.’ 

At that my father’s grief burst hoarsely out. 

‘ Only a woman 1 You say it to my face.^ 

Queen Victoria only a woman! What.^ 

Was the orb nothing.^ Was the sceptre nothing.^ 

To cry“God Save the King” is honourable. 

But to serve a Queen is lovely. Listen now: 

Could I have one wish for this son of mine . . . ’ 

A wish fulfilled at last after long years. 

Think well, Ma’am, of your great-great-grandmother 
Who earned love, who bequeathed love to her sons. 
Yet left one crown in trust for you alone. 


[228] 



MY MORAL FORCES 


My moral forces, always dissipated 
If I condone the least 

Fault that I should have hated 
In (say) 

Politician, prostitute, or priest, 

Appear fanatical to a degree 
If ever I dispute 

Claims of integrity 
Advanced (say) 

By politician, priest, or prostitute. 

But though your prostitute, priest, or politician 
Be good or bad 

As such, I waive the ambition 
To curl (say) 

Chameleon-liice on a Scots tartan plaid. 


[229] 



INTERVIEW 


Sixty bound books, an entire bookcase full, 
All honest prose, without one duplicate. 

Why written? Answer: for my self-support — 
I was too weak to dig, too proud to beg. 

Worth reading? Answer: this array of titles 
Argues a faithful public following. 

Will I not add to the above statement, 
Touching (however lightly) on my verse? 

Answer: this question makes me look a fool, 

As who breeds dogs because he loves a cat. 


p. f.-i 




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[230]